Re the above column, I’ve sent this letter to Time.com…
Would it be acceptable for Time to apportion blame to the victims of indiscriminate shelling by Assad’s forces in Syria? Of course not. So why is it acceptable for a Time columnist to apportion some blame to cyclists in Britain killed by trucks?
Matt McAllester may wish to reflect on why many cyclists “get too close to trucks.” When such a truck overtakes a cyclist, the cyclist is automatically “on the inside” of this truck. Cyclists are often put at extreme risk when trucks come from behind, and then cut in front to turn.
Instead of blaming victims, a Time columnist ought to be asking why so many of London’s citizens (pedestrians as well as cyclists) are killed by a certain type of construction vehicle, the so-called tipper truck? Might it be because of the piece-work pay structure of the drivers of these trucks? Tipper truck drivers are under enormous financial pressure to get through London as fast as possible. Sadly, squishy humans often get in the way and it’s almost always not their fault when they’re maimed or killed.
There are usually very good reasons why cyclists don’t use bike paths, ‘protected’ or otherwise. Too many are crap: narrow, strewn with glass, blocked with lamp-posts and other street furniture. And those “pedestrian pinch points” Mr Barker mentions are some of the worst examples of how seemingly “safe” infrastructure is actually dangerous: motorists often rush to get past at such pinch points and the cycle access sometimes provided at the side of them is often incredibly narrow and invariably stuffed with leaves, glass and other detritus.
London Cycling Campaign’s current rallying cry - #space4cycling - is very clever, and on a national level, not just for London. No cyclist could possibly disagree with the slogan because the words can mean different things to different people. Those in favour of protected infrastructure can take it to mean ‘provision of dedicated separated bike paths’; those in favour of Hackney-style filtered permeability can take it to mean ‘installation of bollards to cut-out rat-runs’; and so-called ‘vehicular cyclists’ (a largely American term, its inventor, surprisingly, still getting mainstream media airtime) can take it to mean ’sharing the road with motor vehicles is easier when motorists treat cyclists as drivers of vehicles and give them space when overtaking’.
I’m a mix of all the above, and even more. (Vehicular cyclist? Yes, in the sense that, in the here and now, and probably long into the future, I’ll be cycling on roads with motor vehicles on them. This is not a desire, more a statement of the bleedin’ obvious. However, I dislike the term ‘driving a bicycle’ even though, historically, it isn’t motoring-specific: driving means herding cattle).
There’s currently a fascinating debate on Twitter about the different meanings of #space4cycling, with some commentators believing #space4cycling means, by definition, taking space away from motorists to give to cyclists; and others believing no such land grab is necessary.
What’s not been mentioned yet, but can be sometimes spotted in comments on tweets and blogs where wide footways are pictured, is that some cycle campaigners wouldn’t be opposed to space being taken away from pedestrians and given to cyclists.
Some past, existing and future public highway designs give a lot of space to pedestrians, funnelling cyclists and motorists into narrow carriageways that are sometimes frustrating for all road users, but cities should give over lots of space to pedestrians.
Cycling campaigners and pedestrians ought to be on the same side here and that’s why #space4cycling might have been more inclusive, more powerful - and, eventually, more successful - if, instead, it had been billed as #space4people.
It still could be. There’s no reason why #space4people couldn’t run alongside #space4cycling. (BTW, I’m very much NOT proposing more shared footways-cum-cyclepaths).
Going back to the twitter debate above, can #space4cycling (or #space4people) be achieved without taking space from motorised vehicles? Without removing car parking spaces? And, if not, shouldn’t this be made explicit by campaigners?
Naturally, it wouldn’t go down well with the motorised majority and it’s something that you could imagine would make Eric Pickles froth at the mouth, but can ‘reallocation of roadspace’ and other forms of #space4cycling really be done without some winners and some losers?
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On Your Bike was a short-lived family cycling magazine I published in 1998 and 1999. Within seven issues it had grown too big for me and my small team to handle, so I sold it. I sold it to EMAP of Peterborough, the publisher of Country Walking and a load of fishing titles. The person in charge of the purchase was a family cyclist. She ‘got’ what the magazine was all about. However, in a management tussle, she was replaced and the replacement turned the magazine into a mountain bike title. I was a paid consultant for the magazine. I told EMAP they were making a big mistake: the gap in the market was for a magazine for everyday cyclists. Within a year, the mountain bike version of the magazine folded.
What a waste.
Below are some of the magazine covers and some of the magazine articles. Contributors included Richard Ballantine; Glenda Jackson; and a youthful-looking Edmund King, then with the RAC not the AA.
I can see my current obsession with pavement parking was alive and kicking even in 1998. There’s praise for separated bike lanes in the magazine and a ‘Go Dutch’ article from Groningen’s Kirsten Oosterhof. Kirsten was one of the people I was employing at the time and she also worked on Cycle Industry, the trade magazine my business produced on a contract-publishing basis before I founded Bicycle Business (which I later sold to Intent Media and it became Bike Biz).
On Your Bike always had a very low Lycra content and there was a policy to use photographs of people riding with and without cycle helmets.
The magazine clearly struck a chord with many people: a call for families to send in details of their riding resulted in a huge influx of pix.
I was proud of On Your Bike. Still am. Issue seven - the last under my full control - featured a photograph of toddler Josh, my son (my twin girls had yet to be born). Pleasingly, Josh has grown up to be a mad keen cyclist, which was always one of the goals of the magazine: to create and encourage new cyclists.
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Groningen in the Netherlands and my hometown of Newcastle became twin cities just after the Second World War. This twinning was ratified in 1988.
Apart from both cities having lots of students there are not too many similarities between Newcastle and Groningen. In fact, the differences between the two cities are startling, especially where transport is concerned. Where Newcastle is in thrall to the car, Groningen is in thrall to the bicycle. (And to the bus).
57 percent of the journeys within Groningen are made by bicycle, something that didn’t happen by chance. As the Streetfilms video below shows, there were radical transport decisions made in the 1970s by left-leaning city politicians (albeit with 70 years of pro-cycling culture on their side). Car journeys were made longer, more difficult; bicycle journeys were made shorter and easier.
In contrast, just a few years before Groningen curbed car use Newcastle’s corrupt city politicians wanted to make their city hyper friendly to the private motor car, creating what they wanted to the “Brasilia of the North”, a reference to the brutally Modernist and car-dependent capital of Brazil.
Newcastle’s double-decker central motorway is awful enough but there were plans for even more motorways. Can Newcastle ‘Go Dutch’? The Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands is staging the ‘Love Cycling Go Dutch’ conference on November 5th. Expect fireworks.
The Streetfilms video is inspiring. Do watch it all the way through.
Cars of the future will be fitted with Shocka-seats™ that give drivers jacksie jolts every time they shout at cyclists “oi, you don’t pay road tax”. Actually, cars won’t need to be so equipped because the most dangerous component on the car - the loose nut behind the steering wheel - could soon be eradicated. Manually driving a car may become a quaint, how-we-used-to-live museum piece, with an animatronic Jeremy Clarkson explaining what a clutch was.
The day is near when we’ll wonder how we ever let humans pilot heavy and fast machines on the public highway next to unprotected humans. (In fact, I wonder that now). When all cars are self-driving, equipped with Light Detecting and Ranging LIDAR and 360-degree cameras, there will be no more ’sorry, mate I didn’t see you’, or SMIDSYs. And the autonomous car will also know when it’s unsafe for the ‘driver’ to exit: dooring of cyclists will be history.
With cars that don’t kill, taxis without cabbies, and HGVs driven by computers not blindspot-afflicted drivers, there will less need for hard infrastructure. Many bicycle advocates believe we’ve started on a Dutch-style 40-year trajectory to getting segregated cycle paths almost everywhere but driverless cars will be here long before the end of that. Why build bike lanes when robocars and driverless trucks will be programmed to know all about space4cycling?
That’s one vision of the future. A more dystopian one involves platoons of speeding robocars making roads even more deeply unpleasant and motor-centric than they often are today. Pedestrians and cyclists may have to be restricted “for their own safety.” After all, if you knew the tipper truck barrelling towards you will automatically brake if you wobbled out in front of it, you’d have little incentive to stay in the gutter and every incentive to play one-sided chicken. Claiming the lane would take on a whole new meaning as cyclists blithely blocked robovehicles. The authorities would be put under immense pressure to stamp out jaywalking - and jaycycling. With cars able to speed through junctions, electronically interacting with each other, and with no need for traffic lights, it would be harder for humans outside of driverless cars to use the roads.
Semi-driverless cars have actually been with us for a while. Adaptive cruise control - which uses radar or lasers to measure the distance to the car in front, slowing or accelerating the car depending on the gap - has been evolving since the late 1990s.
Volvo has had pedestrian detection tech since 2010 and, in March this year, at the Geneva motor show, Volvo executive Doug Speck entered, stage left, on a wooden bicycle to introduce cars that avoid cyclists, too. Volvo’s tech - snappily titled ‘Pedestrian and Cyclist Detection with full auto brake’ and promoted with anti-SMIDSY adverts - kicks in when on-board radar and cameras spot a cyclist about to be squashed. The Volvo takes over from the driver and, even at speeds of up to 80kmh, jams on the brakes. Inspired by Sweden’s wonderful Vision Zero road safety policy, which aims for no road deaths whatsoever, Volvo’s “driver support” package with collision avoidance technology, and adaptive cruise control, puts an extra £2400 on the price of the car and is “very popular”, says Dr Andrew Backhouse, one of Volvo’s Senior Function Developers.
Dr Backhouse is British but based in Sweden and works on Volvo’s pedestrian and cyclist detection software. He told me:
“The system continuously calculates what avoidance manoeuvres are required in order to avoid a collision. If the only braking manoeuvre that will avoid a collision is by slamming on the brakes, then the system goes in and triggers the brakes.”
‘Pedestrian and Cyclist Detection with full auto brake’ is part of Volvo’s journey towards a fully autonomous car. The company is beta testing cars that drive off by themselves to find parking spaces.
On-street parking clogging up the roads? Soon to be a thing of the past. Driverless cars will drop the passenger off at the shops and scuttle away to a hidey-hole, returning to pick up the rider at just the right time.
City planners are licking their lips: they think they’ll be able to get rid of street clutter and, without spending a penny on new infrastructure, squeeze ever more motor vehicles through the existing roads.
“Most people pushing driverless cars are doing so on the basis it will allow a higher volume of traffic on the roads because cars will be able to travel closer together. If this is the case, the only way this works is if you remove pedestrians and cyclists from the equation. As long as someone can still step out in traffic who is not controlled electronically, then you really can’t increase speeds and volume much beyond what they are now.”
“Cycling could be great for commute times. Many commuters might be happy to get a ride to the outskirts of the [central business district], but as they enter the congested zone, have their car drop them off next to a bike for a quick ride to work.”
While an advocate for robocars, he reckons street clutter will be with us for a while yet: “It’s a fair bit of time before [robocars] dominate the road and much longer until there are no human drivers out on the roads. So we still need the signs and the kerbs for a while. [But] as more and more cars become less of a danger, the road becomes more safe.”
While a recent AA/Populus survey found 65 percent of respondents “enjoyed driving too much to ever want a driverless car”, that means 35 percent are already willing to hand control of their driving to microprocessors. “The marketplace will not merely accept self-driving vehicles,” asserts the KPMG/Centre for Automotive Research report, “it will be the engine pulling the industry forward.”
Autonomous cars are coming whether we think we want them or not. As Volvo executive Toscan Bennett explains, “Who wouldn’t want a car which drops you at your doorstep and then goes off and parks itself?”
This driver benefit could be a benefit, too, for those in favour of liveable streets. Many of our roads are clogged with this private property storage on the public highway and if driverless cars scuttled away and hid until needed (VW Beetle, indeed) there would be a lot more space for cyclists and pedestrians.
However, there would also be greater road-space for ramming in more and more fast moving cars. Where congestion is concerned, history shows us that technological fixes promise much but never deliver. London’s tube trains were meant to remove above-ground traffic. In fact, the underground increased surface congestion. Replacing the Victorian horse with cars was meant to double the capacity of London’s roads. It didn’t.
Similarly, the sweating-the-assets promise of driverless cars won’t cure congestion. Instead, it’s highly likely more journeys will be made, quickly negating any benefit.
And more and more journeys will mean the clogged roads of today will be remembered as comparatively empty. There will be pressures to speed up the traffic using more and more tech, and perhaps pressure to restrict the freedom of cyclists and pedestrians. (Robocars will be fitted with car-cams and will capture video evidence of law-breaking cyclists, who will be called out on YouTube, using their registration numbers…)
Or - spinning the futurology dice again - there could be more space for cyclists because the accurately-driven robocars and semi-robocars of the future will be able to stick to very narrow virtual lanes, freeing up space for active travel modes.
CTC’s Roger Geffen said:
“It is hard to tell what driverless car technology would do for cycling.
“It might lead to vast improvements in cyclists’ safety, eliminating the risks from those who drive aggressively, irresponsibly or just without paying attention.
“Then again, if pedestrians and cyclists can run or swerve out in front of cars knowing they will stop, some people will doubtless take advantage of this. That would infuriate drivers, leading to calls for jay-walking and on-road cycling to be banned altogether.
“Cycling’s very survival would then be wholly dependent on getting comprehensive, high-quality segregated cycle networks built.
“Either way, we need to start thinking through the implications of driverless cars.”
And we’d better start thinking about this soon. Driverless cars will be tested on the public roads of Britain by the end of this year, says the Government.
The Department for Transport’s new £28bn plan for Britain’s roads confirms that driverless car technology is on the Government’s LIDAR: “Vehicles that can autonomously manage actions that are currently reserved for the driver…could, in the future, be able to carry out all of the driver tasks. Semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles…have the potential to make our roads work better for everyone.”
Everyone? That’s not yet a given. For sure it would be good to eliminate human error, by far the main cause of crashes, and driverless cars would definitely be good for blind/young/old/distractable/angry/disabled/drunk riders but even though we may own less cars in the future - just rent a robocar via the cloud - we run the very real risk of making our incredibly car-dependent society even more car-dependent.
One fix could be road-pricing. This is unpalatable right now but connected cars will allow for easier and easier micro-tolling. Naturally, this favours the rich, who will be the first to use robocars. No doubt the UK Government will also subsidise these rich motorists, in the same way the Government today offers £5000 bribes to multi-car families so they can add electric cars to their fleets. Robocars, called for and sent away with smartphone apps, promise stress-free mobility for elites and you can imagine a future where insurance restrictions, and legislation, allows access to some roads in robocars only.
It may take 30 to 40 years before the roads of Britain are fully populated with driverless cars. In the meantime, legislators could lean on the EU’s New Car Assessment Programme to make sure every new car is equipped with Volvo-style cyclist and pedestrian auto brake technology. (We may be waiting a while. Dr Backhouse said: “Euro NCAP is planning to introduce ratings for collision avoidance systems. 2014 will see the first ratings. There is a lot of talk about testing the system on pedestrians. Nothing is planned for cyclists though.)”
If cars no longer kill us we will be able to use the roads again, without fear. Bike paths? Where we’re going we won’t need bike paths, as Dr Emmett Brown might have said.
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Last October I was knocked from my cargo-bike in the centre of Newcastle by an aggressive, impatient young motorist who, it has been revealed, has previous, a drink driving offence. Today I was in court as the main witness, and the main victim. But I didn’t feel like a victim, I felt as though it was me in the dock. The crown prosecutor had told me to expect aggressive questioning by the barrister for the defence but I hadn’t expected it to be so aggressive and so anti-cyclist.
I know that our courts use the adversarial system and that the grilling is nothing personal, but it’s tough to remain cool and detached when facing such questioning. It’s far more likely for such a system to work to the advantage of an established culture, such as the norm of driving. Outlier activities, such as transport cycling, are easier to attack. If the type of questioning I was subject to today, and the unfair conclusions in the summing up by the defence barrister, are common in other cases involving motorists and cyclists it’s not surprising so many motorists walk free from court.
Rewind to October…
I was riding a heavy Xtracycle-equipped cargo bicycle and doing everything by the book (that book being Cyclecraft, of course), claiming my lane, looking to see what was behind me and taking my place in a queue of traffic, waiting at traffic lights in a right filter lane, with one car ahead of me (which was inching into the advanced stop line box) and one behind me, a white Fiat Punto.
The motorist behind me had, seconds before, honked his horn as a request to get me out of his way and was shouting something out of his window, perhaps letting me know which of the two users sharing the road at that moment he felt had priority.
I ignored his bellicosity and inched forward when the car in front of me started moving when the light went green. The next thing I knew I was no longer on my bike, I had leg pain and I was facing the white car which had, clearly but surprisingly, deliberately bumped into the rear of my machine.
If you’re going to get shunted by an impatient Boy Racer probably the best bike to be riding is one equipped with an Xtracycle attachment. I was shocked by the rear nudge, but not terribly injured. Somebody on a standard bike would have fared far worse.
I was thrown over the handlebars and I landed on the road. I was bruised and suffered a twisted hip, but there was no blood spilt. The driver got out and accused me of riding erratically and not getting out of his way. I had known he was behind me: I had heard his revving engine and had turned round to give him a shoulder shrug, kind of asking him what his problem was. I certainly wasn’t expecting a punishment tap.
(The tap was so strong the car’s airbag was activated, the motorist, dimly, revealed in court today).
After the shunt I was in shock, but managed to take the pic above on my phone. The driver also took a pic and he called the police, which I welcomed. Five minutes later a police officer arrived.
The young motorist told the attending PC I had been riding erratically and then he had been blinded by the sun at the traffic lights and had accidentally driven into the back of me.
Today in court I was accused of deliberately putting myself in the way of the car in order to cause a confrontation. I was accused of being an aggressive cyclist, weaving in and out of traffic (on an Xtracycle!), going to the right of the defendant’s car window and shouting that I wanted a fight. “You want road rage? I’ll give you road rage,” I was meant to have said. I was then accused of speeding past the Fiat Punto in order to make a point. It was I, not the motorist, who was in the wrong, spat the barrister.
Politely but firmly I told him his claims were fanciful and defied logic. I was greatly helped by the fact the barrister made repeated factual mistakes, including not remembering the accusations he had made just seconds earlier, calling my rear tyre “the car’s bumper” and quizzing why my brake lights didn’t come on after the shunt. I poked holes in his claim that I gave “inconsistent, inaccurate evidence” and said I was defending myself so robustly because he was accusing me of inconsistent inaccuracy.
When he asked what I thought the defendant’s motive had been in giving me a shunt I explained it was very possibly “use of a car as a weapon.”
The barrister audibly laughed at this. I was surprised at his reaction but carried on. Later in the session I reminded the barrister he had laughed at the suggestion the car might have been used as a weapon. The barrister flatly denied he had done so. I asked for the legal secretary to go back to her notes. She did so, told the barrister what had been said, and had been seen by the three magistrates, and he sheepishly backed down. (These guys earn how much?)
The barrister in question was called to the bar in 1990 and is “exclusively defence based”, working for clients accused of murder, rape and fraud. Privately, he also advises clients on the Road Traffic Act, says his online biography. Yet his grasp of what cyclists are allowed to do on the road as part of traffic was shaky to the point of non-existence.
He wanted the magistrates to find for his client because I had placed my bicycle in front of the Fiat Punto and behind the car in front “when Mr Reid should have placed himself in front of the car in front and not ’sandwiched’ between two cars.”
Remember, the car in front was already ahead of the Advanced Stop Line. It was trapped in the box because a bus had taken longer than expected to turn right. According to the barrister I should not have taken my place in a queue of traffic but should have pushed in front of the car ahead and placed myself ahead of the white line at the lights, away from his client. By being in front of his client I was setting out to entrap him, he claimed, and slammed on my brakes in order to be hit. Bizarre logic. (I said so, asking why a vulnerable road user would take such a huge risk).
The case was won, I think, because of an impartial witness who had seen everything that had happened from his car and came over to see if I was OK. In court, this witness (a retired bus driver) described how the defendant, after the shunt, was shouting at me, effing and blinding.
The defendant also had a witness, a female passenger. She had the same story as the defendant, claiming I had been riding erratically, weaving in and out of traffic.
During cross examination it became plain there hadn’t been much traffic on the road for me to weave in and out of. I had been riding in a ‘no car lane’ on Newcastle’s John Dobson Street and then steered into the right hand lane to take a right hand turn. The witness for the prosecution confirmed that I was standing still just before the collision, had briefly looked over my shoulder to check what was behind, and had moved when the light turned green. The barrister claimed the glance over my shoulder was “an obvious look to see when to jump clear of the bicycle and entrap [my client].”
The barrister also tried to make much of the fact I was in the middle of the lane. Quoting from memory from both from the Highway Code and Cyclecraft (I made a point of stressing this book is official literature, published by Her Majesty’s Stationery Office), I was able to steer him away from the claim that I was deliberately trying to obstruct his client merely by being in front of him on a bicycle.
The court case lasted three and a half hours, with a break for lunch. The defence barrister had originally tried to free his client with a technicality over minor inconsistencies between the witness statements and evidence given in court (including mine, I had said I had fallen to the ground upon being ejected from the saddle whereas my witness statement said I had landed on my feet; the retired bus driver said I had fallen to the ground; the driver said I merely stepped from my bike). The magistrates left the court room to deliberate on the point of law but were soon back, asking for the case to proceed.
The barrister then had to call his client. Big mistake. With only the gentlest of questioning from the prosecuting barrister the young motorist agreed he had shunted me, confirmed his claim that the sun had blinded him, and when asked whether he’d now give cyclists more room in the future, he said, yes, yes, he would. In which case, asked the prosecutor, why didn’t you leave space for this cyclist who, it has been claimed, was riding erratically? Shouldn’t you leave more space for such a cyclist, somebody who had been weaving about and shouting aggressively into an open car window? The driver agreed he should have left more space for such an erratic and aggressive cyclist. (I didn’t like the fictional picture this painted of me but could see where the barrister was going with the line of questioning).
If the defending barrister, because of the admissions from his client, thought the case was now lost, he didn’t show it. His summing-up painted the motorist as an innocent angel while I was a raging cyclist, deliberately trying to trick the defendant into smashing into my bicycle “setting a tripwire for [the defendent] for a later civil compensation case”.
The shunt was “an error anybody could make,” said the defence barrister, playing the there-but-for-the Grace-of-God-Go-I card.
His final statement must have bemused the magistrates as much as it bemused me: road “accidents” happen all over the world, all the time, and are the fault of nobody, asserted the defence barrister. Just as a caterpillar and a butterfly are two very different things, yet also the same thing, so his client ought to be found not guilty. This animal-world analogy went on for three or more mind-befuddling sentences and, no, I have no idea what it all meant either. I suspect he rolls out the same Chewbacca-defense in many of his cases and sometimes it must work. In this particular case the insect imagery was lost on the magistrates and they found his client guilty.
In their verdict, the magistrates, sweetly, said my evidence had been “cogent and credible” and that my road positioning was not in any way at fault. The motorist was found guilty of driving without due care and attention and will have to pay court costs of £600. The magistrates left the court room to decide on the motorist’s sentence. I didn’t wait but the police officer who had attended the scene said the motorist would likely get a fine of £600 and three to six points on his driving licence. A previous conviction for drink driving wouldn’t be reflected in the sentence. [UPDATE: an email from 'Criminal Justice System' tells me the driver got an awful lot less than expected: his licence was endorsed with just three points and the total of his fine and costs was £352.]
Earlier, as we were waiting for the court to reconvene after lunch, I had heard the young driver’s witness complaining she’d have to “pay a fortune” in car park charges after being in court for longer than she had planned. He’d pay her back, he promised, adding to the costs the case had cost him (he’d got a parking fine back in October after parking on double yellows to wait for the police). I had no parking charges to pay. I had ridden to court on my cargo bike. And not erratically.
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The UK’s Department for Transport has a good minister for cycling, albeit one shackled by having little real power, and a small number of committed civil servants with cycling’s best interests at heart. However, it’s inescapable that - aside from the officials involved with the vanity project that is HS2 - the Department for Transport is, in fact, the Department for Motorised Road Transport.
“Some of the organizations that like [pro-motoring MPs'] policy implications are fairly obvious: those who make cars, those who build roads, those who sell petrol, and so on. But the most important of the organizations that can be presumed to like both the forecasts and their policy implications is the Department of Transport. It is primarily a department of road transport and contains within its ranks large numbers of people whose working lives have been devoted to planning the expansion of the country’s road network. Despite the fact that civil servants are supposed to be the servants of their political masters it would clearly be unreasonable to expect of them an overnight conversion to policies that called a halt to this expansion or, even worse, that implied that it had been misguided.”
A PDF poster featuring of all the main MPs and officials at the Department for Transport has the strap line:
“Our vision is for a transport system that is an engine for economic growth, but one that is also greener, safer and improves quality of life in our communities.”
Greener? With road building at its core, the DfT can never be truly green. Car culture is deeply embedded in Britain and the Department for Motorised Road Transport has zero desire to change this culture. That’s what we’re up against.
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I am renaming this blog. It will be called Build It And They Will Come and will become a one-stop shop for why and how we have a moral duty to install US-style baseball facilities in every village, town and city in the UK.
We can learn from the Americans. If they can install baseball facilities all over the USA, we can do it too! I am going to use this blog to show Brits it can be done. I’ll post photographs of the very best baseball facilities in the US and aim to get our policy makers to wake up and see the sense of installing such facilities in the UK. It’s going to cost billions of pounds but the health benefits of getting more people playing baseball will quickly pay for itself in reduced costs to the NHS. Baseball facilities should be for everybody, not just fit young men in strange uniforms and helmets. I’d like to see the day when children and older people can enjoy baseball, in safety, and taking part in their ordinary clothes.
The appalling lack of baseball infrastructure in this country is a sad indictment of how we’ve allowed football to dominate our green spaces. Yet we gave baseball to the Americans! It’s true:
The earliest known reference to baseball is in a 1744 British publication, A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, by John Newbery. It contains a rhymed description of “base-ball” and a woodcut that shows a field set-up somewhat similar to the modern game—though in a triangular rather than diamond configuration, and with posts instead of ground-level bases. William Bray, an English lawyer, recorded a game of baseball on Easter Monday 1755 in Guildford, Surrey.This early form of the game was brought to North America by English immigrants.
Despite the fact baseball originated in Britain, the Americans quickly took the sport to heart. Writing in 1919, philosopher Morris Raphael Cohen described baseball as America’s national religion. We should reclaim baseball as ours! It ought to be our national religion, too.
Now, there will be plenty of people who will oppose the creation of US-style baseball infrastructure all over the UK. They will say we can’t afford it. But there’s plenty of money sloshing around in football so it’s a case of reallocating funds so baseball gets a fair share of the available cash. People will say there’s no room for baseball facilities. Again, this isn’t true. Just look at the amount of space given over to football pitches.
But don’t think I’m anti-football. I’m not. I’d like to see football flourish and there’s no reason why having world-class baseball infrastructure should impact on football at all. In fact, I think footballers will be happy to see Britain’s baseball players get out of their way.
To those who say baseball infrastructure will be provided only when there are many more baseball players in the UK I say poppycock! There’s a huge latent demand for baseball in this country. Survey after survey shows that British people want to play baseball but they don’t have the well-designed, well-lit, well-maintained facilities to do what they swear, hand-on-heart, they tell campaigners they’d like to do. By providing US-style baseball facilities all over the UK it will quickly become plain that the only thing stopping mass baseball playing in this country was the lack of somewhere safe to play.
Baseball is something that’s enjoyed by all parts of American society: from bank managers in suits to school children and their Little Leagues. Baseball is an intrinsic part of American culture and has been for more than 120 years. We lost our love for baseball but by building subjectively safe baseball facilities all over the UK we will be able to make baseball a societal norm, just as it is a societal norm in the US.
Providing world-class baseball facilities in Britain makes economic and social sense. By showing planners and politicians how it’s done in America we can stop the piecemeal provision of crap baseball facilities that have been installed in the UK to date.
We should copy world-class American baseball facilities not try to squeeze in a few poorly designed facilities here and there.
Right now, the playing of baseball in the UK is seen as a bit odd, something ‘other people’ do. We can change that. OK, it’s not just about infrastructure, there are plenty of other measures that will be required too but without baseball infrastructure we won’t get Brits playing baseball. British people may prefer the convenience and mass-appeal of football but that’s mainly because of all the football infrastructure that was provided from the 1950s onwards.
By providing baseball infrastructure we can change the habits of the nation! Build It And They Will Come!
And that’s a baseball phrase, of course, made famous by ‘Field of Dreams’, that brilliant 1989 film about an Iowa corn farmer who hears a voice telling him: “If you build it, he will come.” The ‘he’ being the dead baseball player Shoeless Joe Jackson. There’s this other great quote from the film: “If you believe the impossible, the incredible can come true.”
As always, Kevin Costner was right: the future is shaped by dreamers, those who believe the impossible. To reach this future, a future where baseball is played by all, not just young men in strange clothes and funny headgear, we must stop accepting crumbs from the top table. For too long that has been the defeatist attitude of Britain’s baseball organisation, the BTC.
The BTC hasn’t even asked for brilliant baseball facilities so, of course, we haven’t been provided with them. If only they had started asking for world-class baseball facilities back in the 1970s, we’d have them by now. By not asking, the BTC are collaborationists, working to keep baseball as a minority, odd pursuit. It’s not football that has held back baseball, it has been the BTC and their 150-year championing of what they think is right for baseball. It’s time to ditch that 150 years of history. Look what it’s got us: virtually no baseball facilities at all. It’s time to campaign for US-style baseball facilities, and only US-style ones will do.
Don’t think the baseball facilities in Japan have anything to teach us here in the UK. Tokyoize may say Japan has great baseball facilities but he’s wrong. Only America has the right sort of baseball facilities. Bookmark Build It And They Will Come; pass it around your baseball friends; send it planners and politicians. Together we can make Britain into a nation of everyday baseball players!
This is a parody.
Don’t get the idea that I don’t think we should push for cycle infrastructure. And don’t think I’m mocking world-class cycle infrastructure. In both cases I’m not. I, too, want Dutch- or Danish-style cycle infrastructure. However, as a historian (the BBC says so, so it must be true) I’m not so sure we will be able to Go Dutch in the way that so many people imagine and campaign for. Cycling is a societal norm in the Netherlands and has been since the early 1900s. Americans and Brits popularised cycling in the 1880s and 1890s but it was the Dutch who really took cycling to heart. Cycling became part of the Dutch national psyche, an important part of self-image and it’s well worth reading about this very long Dutch cultural identification with cycling. It helps explain why so much cycle infrastructure was installed in the Netherlands from the 1970s on.
In the 1920s and 1930s, cycle use was extremely high in the Netherlands (far higher than in the UK) and there was some cycle-specific infrastructure. In the UK, there were grand plans for separated cycle infrastructure, with some cycle paths installed in the 1930s, but the Second World War intervened and the plans were not carried forward.
One of the designers of this 1930s infrastructure went on to create Dutch-style cycle infrastructure in the New Town of Stevenage in the 1960s and 70s. The infrastructure provision (it’s still there, although faded and truncated in parts) didn’t lead to an explosion in cycle usage.
‘Build It And They Will Come’ seems persuasive as a concept and, in some places, hard infrastructure is most definitely needed but pushing too hard for infrastructure can divert attention from softer measures that can work too (measures also used in the Netherlands).
The creation of baseball facilities up and down the land would lead to some uptick in the playing of baseball but it would be fighting against a societal norm. In the same way, infrastructure alone will not turn Britain into a nation of ‘people on bikes’.
There are many cultural, social and historical reasons why there are beautiful, world-class examples of joined-up cycle infrastructure in the Netherlands.
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Cars are great. I own one. But so do many other people. And that’s why cars aren’t always the best tool for the job. In urban areas, for short trips, walking or cycling is often quicker and certainly better for personal health and for the planet and for the least impact on others. One person propelling a hunk of metal that can seat four or five people is such a waste of space. Which is why I like the illustration above. Car travel, in towns and cities, should be reined back by planners and politicians.
This idea is on the ascendency. Planners are waking up to the fact cities are for people, not cars. In car-obsessed Britain it will take longer for car permeability to be curtailed, but with such a finite amount of space to play with, and with a growing population, the desires of the motorised majority to drive everywhere can’t be fulfilled for ever.
The illustration above is by Japanese artist Tatsuro Kiuchi. The car stencil reminds me of the work of Pete Drew, an Australian artist who let me place his pro-bike polemic on Flickr back in 2010. The image has had 77,000+ views to date and was given a creative commons licence so it could be disseminated widely. If often pops up on Facebook and Twitter, although, sadly, rarely credited to Drew.