Scare them silly. Shoot a horror movie that’s meant to shock them into being safer on bikes (wear a magic hat, bike helmets protect your head when you’re hit by a speeding car) and how not to cross the road (listen to an iPod, get squashed, it’s your own stupid fault).
This is the gist of the Ghost Street campaign. I’m sorry to say this web campaign, and the DVD for schools that goes with it, is from my neck of the woods. What were they thinking? ‘They’ being Newcastle City Council. Why create a website riddled with victim-blaming material backed up with no evidence?
UPDATE [10th March 2011]: Newcastle City Council has now taken down the badly-researched material on the Ghost Streets website and replaced it with…nothing. The site is now password protected, and the links in this piece no longer work.
I now have the Freedom of Information request info so can report the video cost £12,000 to produce, with 100 DVDs sent out to schools.
Dene Films got the cash. This outfit is top-notch and would probably normally charge much more than this for a film of this quality. The editing, the graphics, everything about the film, was high-quality but the website was awful. The thrust of the campaign might have been to shock kids into paying more attention on the roads, but the most likely outcome would be that kids would want to get behind the “protection” afforded by cars as soon as possible.
Newcastle City Council said the film’s genre and plot was suggested by kids. This appears not to be the case. According to a promo video by Dene Films, the horror scenario was suggested by Dene Films. Chris Chapman, writer and producer at Dene Films said: “It wasn’t going to be horror it was going to be a talking heads documentary… We knew we wanted to pitch a drama. We knew we wanted to tell a story that was gruesome.”
“Traffic is the biggest cause of accidental death of 12 to 16-year-olds.”
No, traffic is not a killer, it’s speeding, inattentive motorists that do the killing. And let’s get rid of this word: “accidental”. Instead of “accident”, use “incident” or “crash”. 99 per cent of road deaths are avoidable. It’s not an “accident” when motorists speed along urban roads at many MPH above posted limits. It’s not an “accident” when motorists overtake in stupid places or miscalculate gaps.
“Research has found that teenagers are easily distracted on the roads.”
Sure they are. And they need to be made more aware of the potential danger of such inattention. But the Ghost Street campaign will have one major result: it will make teens want to drive, to be “protected”.
The imagery for the campaign is illuminating. The markings for the dead body image - above - are on a pavement. Motorists don’t just kill kids on the roads, they kill them on pavements, too. No amount of pedestrians “paying attention” and wearing light-coloured clothing will prevent drivers from mounting kerbs and killing people.
Newcastle City Council ought to be spending money on restraining drivers, not scaring pre-drivers into getting drivers’ licences as soon as they possibly can.
Teens want to drive for a whole load of reasons, similar to the reasons most people want to drive, but why give them such a strong and gory reason to withdraw from the streets?
While the campaign is aimed at 11-16 year olds, there is a driving section but on here there’s nothing urging motorists to pay attention to the road ahead and not use mobile phones when driving.
Teenage motorists text and drive too fast. The motoring section of the Ghost Streets campaign is extremely weak.
I’ve put in a Freedom of Information request to get answers to the following questions:
1. What is the budget for the Ghost Streets campaign?
2. How much money did Dene Films get for the Ghost Streets video?
3. How many DVDs were produced for the campaign?
4. How much did it cost to produce these DVDs?
5. How many DVDs are expected to be sold?
6. What research was carried out to ascertain whether this campaign would be effective at changing the behaviour of the intended audience?
7. Are there any plans for follow-up monitoring of this campaign?
I should hear back within 20 days and will reveal the answers here. [In the meantime, Newcastle City Council’s Head of Highway Network and Traffic Management has given a lengthy rebuttal of the points above - see below the press release).
The campaign’s press release is quite the horror story:
Welcome to Ghost Street
A spooky new film is about to give teenagers in Newcastle a supernatural lesson on road safety.
The film aimed at 12 – 16 year olds, will be shown around schools in Newcastle to raise awareness of road safety and influence teenagers behaviour to use safety advice as part of their everyday life.
The film follows Tabby, your average and seriously distracted teenager. Living in a world of mp3 players, gossip and mobile phones until her distraction costs her dearly. Tabby finds herself trapped in an other-worldly place, a deathly-silent street until the ghosts come out to play.
Each gory character has met their end on the same street throughout the decades and each has a lesson to learn from the road.
Skater-boy – should have looked before he skated onto the road.
Olivia – an 80s throwback who wished she wore a helmet the first time she rode her new bike.
Rebecca – a pregnant teenager who should have worn a seatbelt.
Commissioned by Safe Newcastle and the City Council’s Road Safety Department, Ghost Street is to be used in schools across Newcastle as part of a lesson plans.
Cheryl Ford, Newcastle City Council’s road safety services officer, said: “Teenagers naturally expect independence. They travel on their own or with friends more than they used to and are confident that they know what to do around roads and traffic. In fact, they over-estimate their road skills.
“We targeted teenagers for our film as research shows that around 14 years-of-age is the best chance to influence young people’s future behaviour.
“Teenagers love a good scary film and Ghost Street has plenty of creepy characters and plenty of gore to keep them hooked.”
Safe Newcastle asked the Youth Parliament to be involved in the commissioning of the film.
Cllr Anita Lower, Chair of Safe Newcastle, said “Who better to decide on what type of film we produce than the target audience themselves.
The Youth Parliament discussed the issues that affect them as pedestrians and this formed the basis of the messages in the film. They were very excited by the idea of Ghost Street and felt that a thrilling fictional story would engage them more.
“Previous road safety films have raised the bar in what’s expected from this type of educational film and I think Ghost Street meets this level.”
Chris Chapman, of Dene Films, wrote and produced Ghost Street, said: “We had tremendous fun making the film but always had a focus on the serious nature behind the film. The young cast worked tirelessly in some testing conditions and the make-up team brought each character to life in wonderful grisly detail. We wanted to create a fictional drama that young people would enjoy watching and were going to remember for a long time.”
Ghost Street - Response from Newcastle City Council.
Newcastle City Council places great value on feedback from the cycling community and other partners working hard to improve road safety and, as a listening council, we welcome your input.
Ghost Street is a multi-award winning educational resource designed by school children for school children. It is intended to provoke discussion around road safety and raise awareness of all aspects of road safety.
Since its launch in 2009, the film has been welcomed by every secondary school in the North East region, each of whom has demonstrated its support for the project by purchasing a copy for their lesson plans. Many of them have commented on how well their classes have responded to the discussion part of the lesson.
The film is designed to be seen in totality and we feel that judgments made on very short clips – some as short as a few seconds - taken out of context can be unrepresentative and misleading.
Do you feel it is fair to condemn a film after watching 12 seconds of it?
We would also like to stress that Newcastle is the most active council in the North East in respect of actively supporting and promoting cycling – last year, for example, we trained 3,500 school children in cycle proficiency as part of out ongoing commitment. But we are doing much more than that.
Here are some further points you might wish to take into consideration when coming to a conclusion about the film.
Ghost Street is based on an idea by the Local Youth Parliament who decided that a fictional story with a ‘supernatural’ theme would engage them more than a standard ‘safety’ film would.
Ghost Street is not intended to be viewed as a standalone film. That is why it is only available to schools delivering road safety lesson plans.
The film is part of wider road safety package, which includes a discussion session afterwards. To aid the discussion, teachers have the full support and guidance from their local Road Safety Officer.
Ghost Street carefully covers most scenarios of road safety including speeding, seatbelts, walking and cycling.
All facts and figures were provided by THINK! Road Safety.
Road Safety GB has endorsed Ghost Street and have supported the national roll out of the package.
Ghost Street has received several awards/award nomination:
IVCA Awards 2010 (Bronze medal for best original music, sound design, script)
Royal Television Society 2010 (Best drama, director, newcomer)
New York Festival Award 2011 (Nominated for best short film)
Newcastle City Council’s commitment to sustainable transport
We fully advocate safer walking and cycling in Newcastle and this enthusiasm is reflected in Newcastle City Council’s Sustainable Transport Programme Strategy and part of our ethos for School Travel Plans which has 100% approval from the Department for Education and Skills.
We have welcomed the constructive comments around making our website clearer so that readers can get a sense of the wider context and we will certainly make efforts to put this right.
We value you contribution as part of the debate and welcome any future comments you have to make about road safety.
Head of Highway Network and Traffic Management
Newcastle City Council.
Electric cars - which are, in fact, coal-powered - shift emissions away from source but don’t solve congestion. Millions of electric cars will take up the same space as millions of cars powered by petrol. Millions more cars on the road will only have freedom of movement if more roads are built. The Department for Transport predicts congestion to increase by at least 54 percent within 23 years.
Roads destroy countyside. You know, like woodlands.
Best to get woods out of public ownership, then. And this is what the Government is trying to do, although the bigger-than-expected protests against the sell-off have caused Cameron and chums to have second thoughts.
Last week the Government temporarily suspended its plans to take 15 percent of the public forest estate out of state control which would have generated up to £100m. And a consultation paper from the “greenest Government ever” that was seeking “a range of ownership and management options for the remaining 85 percent of the estate” will be scrapped, believes the BBC.
It’s hard not to be a smug cyclist when you can ride up ice.
Take tonight, for instance. There I was, minding my own business, churning up the hill from my house to my daughter’s dance studio. I had flashing LEDs all over me and my Xtracycle. I also pack a secret weapon. Lots of them, in fact.
I ride with studded tyres.
The motorist in the Toyota Land Cruiser didn’t feel as though he would like to wait behind me as I churned up the hill. I was a slow, plodding cyclist (bright and visible, but still too slow and plodding for his tastes). I could tell from his revs and his inching up to my back wheel that he was itching to get past.
Benton Bank is steep. Like many British minor roads at the moment it’s packed with ice and there are just two channels to drive or ride along.
I was in one of them and I can’t easily get out, or I risk falling.
Does Mr 4WD sit back and wait for me to complete the climb? Of course not. He revs, drives half way into the hard-pack ice and slush on his right-hand side, and gets up beside me, wheel-spinning like crazy. Naturally, and rather wonderfully, that was the end of his hill climb.
He could wheel-spin and wheel-spin but the numptie was going nowhere. I sailed on, my spiked tyres biting into the ice. I got to the top of the hill and turned around: the driver had managed to extricate himself from his self-made icy quagmire but he was pointing downhill, defeated.
Normally, aggressive drivers get away with their stupid overtaking of cyclists. Not tonight. I would have loved to have seen the guy’s expression as he got stuck, and I carried on pedalling. Studded tyres are expensive but, believe me, they’re worth every penny.
The pic above shows the hill in question but not the actual incident described above. That took place in the pitch black. The traffic shown in the pic is half of the vehicles which got stuck on the hill when I pedalled to school at 3.20pm (I took the pic after I’d got the kids home: half of the vehicles were still stuck). A skip truck got stuck and then a car and then a van and then more cars. I cycled slowly past them. Did I mention I use studded tyres?
If you’re currently riding through the UK’s snowpocalypse, you’ll be intimately aware that non-arterial roads are uneven, rutted with compacted snow and solidified slush. They’re hard to traverse: bumpy, pock-marked and liable to throw the rider at any moment. There are no road markings visible, and pedestrians meander in the middle of the carriageway, unmolested by motors.
A lot like roads used to be, then.
The hard, flat road surfaces we today take for granted are relatively new. Asphalt surfaces weren’t widespread until the 1930s. So, we have motorists to thank for this smoothness?
No. The improvement of roads was first lobbied for - and paid for - by cycling organisations.
In fact, cyclists lobbied for better road surfaces for a full 30 years before motoring organisations did the same.
Cyclists were ahead of their time.
When railways took off from the 1840s, the coaching trade died, leaving roads almost unused and badly repaired. Cyclists were the first vehicle operators in a generation to go on long journeys, town to town. Cyclists helped save many roads from being grubbed up.
Roads in towns were sometimes well surfaced. Poor areas were cobbled; more upscale areas were covered in granite setts (what many localities call cobbles, but they ain’t - cobbles are bulbous river stones, think Shambles of York).
Pretty much every other road was left unsurfaced and would be the colour of the local stone. Many 19th Century authors waxed lyrical about the varied and beautiful colours of British roads.
Cyclist organisations such as Cyclists’ Touring Club in the UK and League of American Wheelmen in the US, lobbied county surveyors and politicians to build better roads. The US ‘Good Roads’ movement, set up by LAW, was highly influential. LAW once had the then US president turn up at its AGM.
The CTC individual in charge of the UK-version of the Good Roads movement - William Rees Jeffreys - organised asphalt trials before cars became common. He took the reins of the Roads Improvement Association in 1890, while working for the CTC.
He later became an arch motorist and the RIA morphed into a motoring organisation. Rees Jeffreys called for motorways in Britain 50 years prior to their introduction. But he never forgot his roots. In a 1949 book, Rees Jeffreys - described by Lloyd George as “the greatest authority on roads in the United Kingdom and one of the greatest in the whole world” - wrote that cyclists paved the way, as it were, for motorists. Without the efforts of cyclists, he said, motorists would not have had as many roads to drive on. Lots of other authors in the early days of motoring said the same but this debt owed to cyclists by motorists is long forgotten.
Now motorists tell us to get off “their” roads. Hmmm.
I’m resurrecting this forgotten history in a book. The working title is Asphalt: A Love Story. It might sound dull but I’ve dug up loads of what I hope are entertaining anecdotes, quotes and facts.
I’ve been researching the book on and off for some months. I started on the history of the CTC on Monday. I spent two days in the CTC archive at the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick. I ploughed through the very first ‘Gazettes’ of the Bicycle Touring Club (founded 1878), which became the CTC. Members of the nascent CTC were obsessed with road surfaces. There were many editorials about the subject and many letters, too.
Along with the National Cyclists’ Union, the CTC created the Roads Improvement Association in 1885 and, in 1886, organised the first ever Roads Conference in Britain. With patronage - and cash - from aristocrats and Royals, the CTC published influential pamphlets on road design and how to create better road surfaces. In some areas, county surveyors took this on board (some were CTC members) and started to improve their local roads.
Even though it was started and paid for by cyclists, the Roads Improvement Association stressed from its foundation that it was lobbying for better roads to be used by all, not just cyclists.
However, in 1896 everything changed. Motoring big-wigs lobbied for the Locomotives Amendment Act to be repealed (this act made a driver of a road locomotive drive very, very slowly and the vehicle had to be preceded by a man waving a red flag). When the act was jettisoned, speeds increased, automobilists demanded better road surfaces to go even faster on, and ’scorchers’ and ‘road hogs’ (terms first used against cyclists) took over the roads.
By the early 1900s most motorists had forgotten about the debt they owed to prehistoric track builders, the Romans, turnpike trusts, John McAdam, Thomas Telford and bicyclists. Before even one road had been built with motorcars in mind (this wasn’t to happen until the 1930s), motorists assumed the mantle of overlords of the road.
A satirical verse in Punch magazine of 1907 summed up this attitude from some drivers:
The roads were made for me; years ago they were made. Wise rulers saw me coming and made roads. Now that I am come they go on making roads – making them up. For I break things. Roads I break and Rules of the Road. Statutory limits were made for me. I break them. I break the dull silence of the country. Sometimes I break down, and thousands flock round me, so that I dislocate the traffic. But I am the Traffic.
At the time, the CTC had little inkling cyclists would soon be usurped. An editorial in the CTC Gazette of July 1896 admitted the “horseless carriage movement will make an irresistible advance” and asked members whether motorists should be admitted to membership. Such a move was declined by members but cyclists were later instrumental in the foundation of the Automobile Association, an organisation created to foil police speed traps.
* Think the A1 was built for cars? Think again, much of it was built for Centurions (Romans, not tanks).
* Asphalt is not a new building material; it was widely used in antiquity, including by the Babylonians. And the Egyptians used the stuff in their death rituals: the Egyptian word for ‘mummification’ is derived from ‘asphaltos’.
* John Loudon McAdam perfected road metalling in the 1820s. His McAdamized roads were built from lots of small stones packed into place by cart traffic. Only much later was tar spread on these roads to create ‘tarmac’. McAdam never thought to bind his roads with tar, despite owning a tar factory.
Local authorities are feeling squeezed and will look to pitch to any fund for cash. The Local Sustainable Transport Fund was ostensibly set up for bus, walking and cycling schemes. (Cycling England was scrapped because of the Local Sustainable Transport Fund). Some local authorities may submit road schemes for cash from the Local Sustainable Transport Fund; schemes that will mostly benefit motorists.
Transport leaders [in Manchester] are looking for new ways to fund £500m of projects ditched by the government. They are waiting to see if they can apply for money from two new Whitehall cash pots totalling nearly £2bn.
The M.E.N has revealed how the axed schemes include a £290m bypass connecting the A6 near Stockport to the M56 at Manchester Airport.
The £100m proposal to replace the shelved Mottram-Tintwistle bypass – the so-called Longdendale integrated transport strategy – has also been scrapped. So has a £32m plan for 18 new park-and-ride sites across the region, a £30m inner relief road for Wigan and a £50m package of railway station improvements.
But the region’s transport bosses are seeing if cash can be sourced from the new £1.4bn Regional Growth Fund and the £560m Local Sustainable Transport Fund.
Will the Government stamp down on such behaviour? We’ll have to wait and see. Hoverboard Hammond has yet to release guidelines for local authorities. Let’s hope the Local Sustainable Transport Fund isn’t ambushed for other purposes, and that the scoring for bids is high for genuine sustainable transport and low for ‘congestion reducing’ schemes that are, in fact, a smokescreen for pro-car projects.
Hoverboard Hammond doesn’t inspire confidence. Watch this video from yesterday in Parliament where the Commons Transport Committee quizzed the Transport Minister on the impact of the Comprehensive Spending review. Yawn, much of the quizzing was about airport security but skip forward to 16:26:50 as transport chair Louise Ellman asks Hoverboard Hammond about what criteria the Department for Motorised Transport (DMT) will be using when evaluating which projects to support from the Local Sustainable Transport Scheme.
Hammond said the scheme had two headline objectives: “To support economic growth and to reduce carbon output but there are also clear objectives road safety, promoting walking and cycling, improving the urban environment and improving congestion.”
It’s these last two that could be used by local authorities to help pay for pro-motoring schemes. We’ll have to keep a beady eye on what local authorities bid for. As Hammond says in the video, there are no guidelines for local authorities yet so we have no idea how applications will be scored. We’ll have to crawl over the guidelines when they do come out to make sure cycling and walking get the bulk of the cash.
Skip to 16:34:00 if you want to watch Hammond talk about how the Government had nothing to do with local authorities switching off speed cameras…
Read the rest of "Could car schemes get some of the Government’s new bus/bike/ped fund?"...
OK, so yesterday’s announcement that iTunes would henceforth stock the Beatles back-catalogue wasn’t exactly earth-shattering but at least a great pic of the Beatles on bikes is now more widely available.
The still is from the 1965 film ‘Help’, released in the same year as the album with the same name. The bike scene - shot in the Bahamas - shows the mop-top four aboard rod-brake roadsters, riding red-eyed from too much pot.
Transport Secretary Philip Hammond will be appearing on Radio 4’s ‘Any Questions’ next week. If you live in Surrey and want to put a petrolhead minister on the spot now could be your chance.
The event will be on 19th November at Wallington High School for Girls, Woodcote Road, Wallington, Surrey SM6 0PH.
Free tickets for Friday’s event are available from tel: 020 8254 9324, or [email protected]
Hammond is the transport secretary who, as part of his first public statement, said he had “ended the war on the motorist”. He also choked off the cash for Cycling England, replacing it with…nothing. He’s pouring billions of pounds into motorway widening and has an open cheque-book policy on electric car infrastructure, but this is where his interest in transport ends.
He’s happier spending time in other Government departments, advising them on where and how to cut, rather than be briefed on topics in his own department. He didn’t want the transport role, he wanted to be bean counter number two. And doesn’t it show? Time spent in departments other than his own means he hardly sees his own team: road safety minister Mike Penning has seen his boss so few times he now jokes about it in private.
And whenever Norman ‘once-a-lion-now-a-poodle’ Baker gets a face to face with Hammond it consists of a one way conversation, and is invariably about which part of the sustainable transport budget will be chopped next.
Transport ministers of all creeds have one big fear. If they start talking about walking or cycling - or anything that’s not deemed MSM-sexy such as aviation or electric sportscars or high speed rail – they worry the redtops will picture them as being in charge of the Ministry of Silly Walks. Monty Python has done more damage to our nation’s health than you might think.
So, it’s against this background that it might be a good idea to get in the audience for ‘Any Questions’. Hammond is incredibly weak on transport topics that don’t involve asphalt and Jaguars, and a few questions lobbed his way could expose this weakness.
Does he really think electric cars will cure congestion? How will 8000 electric cars (the estimate for numbers sold by 2013) curb either carbon or congestion? Why is the British Government giving rich car owners cash to buy even more cars: why do well-heeled folks need £5000 subsidies to buy electric cars? And how come this slush fund starts in January but the pitifully small Local Sustainable Transport Fund doesn’t start paying out until October? If electric cars can get a state handout, why not electric bikes? What is his definition of “war” (are speed cameras used in Iraq and Afganistan?) How can he justify abolishing Cycling England which costs £200,000 a year to run, which is about the cost of five metres of motorway? With UK car ownership now at 31 million and rising, at what level of ownership will gridlock kick in? If he doesn’t know, why not?
There are so many questions that can be asked of Hoverboard Hammond. I wish I lived in Surrey. If you do, get in that audience…
Read the rest of "Does Hoverboard Hammond live in fear of Monty Python?"...
From January onwards, thanks to a £43m gift from UK taxpayers, UK consumers will be eligible for £5000 grants to go get themselves electric cars. By definition these early adopters will be well-heeled. On the whole, electric cars will be sold as urban runabouts to rich folks who already own petrol-engine cars and who, because of e-car ‘range anxiety’, will keep their gas guzzlers for longer journeys.
Hoverboard Hammond - the Transport Secretary who, earlier this year, and at great risk to himself, single-handedly ended the war on the motorist – believes £28,000 e-cars will curb both emissions and congestion. Neither positions are true: emissions will just be shunted someplace else* and it’s patently obvious that e-cars, being the same size as standard cars, will not make a jot of difference to congestion.
So, why is the UK Government - in this supposed age of austerity - happy to subsidise motoring yet radically reduce the cash and support for cycling?
Last month the Government said it was going to scrap Cycling England. Per year, Cycling England cost £200,000 to run. As the M6 road widening project is weighing in at £1000 an inch, the running of Cycling England can be estimated to have cost about five metres of motorway per year. Not five miles, five metres.
But it’s politically easy to take cash away from cycling: cyclists don’t tend to blockade motorways.
The UK Government is stumping up just £560m over four years for its new Local Sustainable Transport Fund. So, all cycling, bus and pedestrian projects will be fighting it out over a pot that’s not a great deal more than been given to 8000 or so rich motorists. And this is the age of austerity? We all have to suffer together? Not if you want an electric runabout for town from January onwards.
The first annual payment of £140m from the £560m fund for buses, bikes and pedestrians won’t be released until October 2011.
Why is the UK Government - which bills itself as the ‘greenest Government ever’ - so incredibly short-sighted and mean when it comes to cycling?
By all means “invest” in electric cars but why spend so little on cycling? It was the last Government which created the £400m Plugged In Places scheme and the £5000 Plug-In Car Grant, but at least Labour spent cash on cycling, too.
If coal-powered electric cars can get big fat grants, why can’t coal-powered electric bicycles plug into the same slush fund?
Of course, better still, shouldn’t those who ride standard bicycles get paid for reducing the amount of cars on the road and emitting nothing more noxious than hot-air? Does anybody have a link for the application form for the £5000 grant for riding my bike every day?
* Most of the electricity produced in the UK is generated from burning coal. Nuclear energy is in the mix too, and that has its obvious downsides. Even if all our electricity was generated by green means (hydro, wind, wave, and solar) that still doesn’t get round the fact it’s daft to transport a ten stone human in a one-ton car for short distances.
Yes, an electric car produces less CO2 emissions than an ICE car. And we definitely want less spewing of carbon monoxide, benzene, particulates and NO2. But bicycles don’t produce any of those either.
But electric cars - and to a much lesser degree, electric bicycles - are no angels. Millions of e-cars will consume waaaay too much lithium. This is mostly mined in Latin America, in countries with sometimes unstable and suspect regimes.
Instead of focussing on a petrol car substitute, Governments around the world should be evaluating alternatives to the car.
Read the rest of "Do Transport Ministers dream of electric sheep?"...
Where do I stand on the issue of segregated cycle facilities? You could say I’m middle of the road.
But not in the wishy-washy sense. I love roads. I want to keep riding on them. And I want others to join me, and ride in safety by doing so.
Where’s this angst coming from? Myself, and the CTC, are getting a mauling over on ibikelondon for daring to suggest it’s pie-in-the-sky to demand segregated cycle routes from a car-fixated Government that is representative of a car-fixated society.
SHORT VERSION: Shy bairns get nowt so why don’t I shout from the roof-tops my view that cities would be more civilised places if they were friendlier to cyclists? I do shout that, but is the ‘we ought to have Dutch-style cycle infrastructure, and we ought to have it now’ vision ever going to work in the UK? My view is that such a stance is necessary, but easily ignored as “visionary” and therefore “unachievable”. Push for it, by all means, but also push for lots of little achievable goals, which will eventually coalesce, and by which time we might actually have a society less in thrall to the car.
LONG VERSION: read on…
Sorry to prick bubbles, but we ain’t gonna get, any time soon, the sort of cycle infrastructure we’d all love. For a start, we all want different kinds of segregated routes (wouldn’t it be great if pedestrians stayed in their bits of turf, too?) and we only want quality segregated routes but what you and I think are routes fit for use don’t usually get built: instead we’re too often fobbed off with second-rate infrastructure that’s sometimes worse than useless, but we’re expected to use it regardless.
In such a car-centric society as the UK it is politically naive to believe meaningful space will be taken away from cars without a massive and democratic reaction against such a move. As is made clear in October’s National Infrastructure Plan [PDF], there’s no will from national leaders for such a revolution nor is there any cash.
At the local level it’s just as bad, perhaps even worse. Local highways departments have been car-centric for many years. A council may have one lonely cycling officer, but these positions rarely carry power, and are being chopped anyway. The majority of local councillors - with a normal windscreen perspective, and one eye on the ballot box - are pro-motoring; some are actively anti-cycling.
Motormyopia is endemic. Mad, bad and sad, but true. In the meantime, we have to build alliances with other active travel and true road safety organisations, not be single issue campaigners. A number of prominent bloggers have recently had Cyclepath to Damascus conversions and now insist that cycling won’t grow in the UK without Dutch-style cycling facilities. But, in the car-centric UK, ‘infrastructure or nothing’ is a position doomed to failure.
Videos like the one above show what can be done when there’s the political will to make radical changes, and I’m all for provision of the routes such as the ones featured.
But, depressing though it is, we have to recognise we’re not going to get anything good for cycling from the present administration. Hoverboard Hammond is a lost cause. Norman Baker, the minister in charge of cycling and walking, and who was a lion in opposition, is now Hammond’s poodle and talks about his pride at the part he’s playing in “ending the war on the motorist.”
But even if, by some happy fluke, Hammond was jettisoned and a sensible, progressive Transport Secretary materialised – one who realised cities are more livable when King Car is tamed – this non-motorised Messiah would still have to fight to effect change in the car-centred Department for Transport. And, locally, there’s an awful lot of opposition from powerful figures, and from the majority of voters, to anything that smacks of taking space and ‘rights’ away from motorists.
Cycle campaigners can dream all they like but there’s got to be a realisation there’s an existing cycle network: roads. Roads go everywhere; segregated cycle facilities in the UK never do, and probably never would. They don’t in the Netherlands or Copenhagen, either. Check out the video of Dutch cyclists merging on to roads below, or go there (I have): yes, there are some wonderful segregated facilities but there are also lots of places when cyclists have to mix it with other traffic. I’ve seen this in even the most bicycle-friendly parts of the Netherlands.
Good infrastructure design is key but, also, a huge difference in the Netherlands is driver attitudes to cyclists, backed up with legislation should a driver dare to use the fatally-flawed ‘I didn’t see you’ excuse.
And in Freiburg, Copenhagen, and other bike-friendly places, motorised traffic is more mindful of cyclists. This doesn’t yet happen in the the UK because there’s scant legal protection for cyclists, and there are not enough of us. It’s chicken and egg, of course, but fantasising about a utopia where segregated cycle facilities cure all carries the very real risk of marginalising cycling (think Milton Keynes).
Naturally, it’s a good negotiating technique to shoot for the moon, never say never, but dreamers make for poor deal-makers. Visionaries can dream the future, can push for the future, but it’s deal-makers who build the future.
The fantastic cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands took many years to develop and cycling was given both cash and clout.
Such infrastructure, when built to world-class standards, would be welcome but let’s not lose sight of the fact we need to make the best of what we’ve got. As roads go everywhere, we need to keep access to those roads for the current crop of cyclists and for future generations. Roads are not dangerous; it’s the bad drivers on them that are dangerous.
Those vividly in favour of segregation above all else say we will only get a mass cycling culture in this country if we build protected cycle lanes. Think of the children! Think of grannies! Think of teenage girls! None of those would ever want to cycle next to thundering lorries or ‘claim their lane’ in Forester-style heroics. Thing is, such people are being attracted to cycling, despite the often cruddy conditions out there.
But, then again, why would hesitant cyclists ride on busy roads? Far better to stick to the side roads, where there’s less chance of meeting juggernauts. Standard advice for newbies is find quieter routes, something that can now be done online or via the iPhone journey planning app I created for the Bike Hub levy fund.
Don’t talk segregation; talk short-cuts. Campaign for closing off road entrances.
In central London, there are an amazing amount of new cyclists appearing. On the roads. And they are not all ‘cyclists’; most of the newbies are ‘people on bikes’. Sure, protected cycle lanes on every road would encourage even more newbies to hop on bikes but such a radical redesign of the country flies in the face of British history. For 100 years, our roads have been modified to suit the motorcar. 1930s trunk roads which were built with adjoining protected cycle lanes were long ago changed into race-tracks for cars. This was wrong and uncivilised but motormyopia is so virulent in the UK it’s going to take a miracle to reverse a century of short-sightedness.
Waiting for a miracle can lead to inaction in the here and now. One of the problems with aiming for the sky is it’s an awfully long way away and it’s easy to get discouraged when you’re hardly off the ground, never mind making it into the troposphere. Yet there are many, many things that can improve the lot of cyclists at local and national levels: the aggregation of marginal gains is a concept from sport cycling but can be just as easily applied to cycle campaigning.
To get more people to use bikes requires much more than just infrastructure. Build it and they will come is true only in part. The UK Government is willing to spend millions of pounds creating an ‘electric vehicle recharging infrastructure’ but isn’t relying on that alone, it is also going to bribe early adopters with fat grants. (Now you could argue that the Government ought to do that for cycling, too. It would be fair and sensible to do so, but the windscreen perspective of this Government and all previous ones, too, is too entrenched).
The rise in cycling in recent years might be just a trickle compared to 31 million cars on the roads but all snowballs start small.
Yes, modal share is still pitifully low, but it’s definitely growing (DfT Excel stats). And it’s growing without widespread segregation. At some major junctions in rush-hour London, 30 or 40 cyclists are at the head of queues. Cars and trucks can’t get past. A major modal share shift won’t happen overnight but - with Government support of cycling or not - it’s coming. Gridlock, Peak Oil, piss-poor public transport and other factors, will see to that.
On many stretches of road, segregated facilities make sense and I’d be first in line calling for their introduction, but to have as your chief aim the demand for an infrastructure spend of billions when cycling isn’t even getting millions right now means your aim can be dismissed as fantasy by the powers-that-be. We need many smaller aims, not just one big one.
We have to share the road, we have to live in the real world.
I, too, hate, and campaign against, dangerous driving; but partition - easier said than done - is not the only answer. It may not even be the best answer.
I’m a multi-discipline cyclist, mostly I ride a cargo bike in civvies but now and then switch to roadie mode when I ride my full-carbon race machine. I’m male, fit and fast, but I don’t consider myself just a so-called ‘vehicular cyclist’. I use and mightily approve of segregated facilities, when they’re worthwhile, but no UK Government is going to build a perfect cycle network from my house to every single destination I ever want to get to.
However, there’s an imperfect road system that does this and I want to keep the right to ride on roads. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying all cyclists should use dual carriageways in order to maintain cycle use on those highways but I want to make my own route decisions, I don’t want to be channelled.
In the Netherlands, use of some cycle paths is obligatory. Cyclists are forbidden from roads where this is the case. Imagine, if you will, some crappy segregated route local to you that you had to use even though you knew the road route was quicker, cleaner, better; perhaps even safer. You’d want to use that, but couldn’t. Segregation has the potential to bite back.
We need to campaign to curb idiot motorists; we shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking partition is a panacea.
It’s worth remembering the desire for partition isn’t unique to cyclists. Segregation is something motorists have campaigned for since the early days of motoring. With cyclists off the road, motorists assume they’ll be able to drive faster (they won’t, of course, it’s the hundreds of cars in front of them holding them up, not cyclists).
Motorways were the result of this desire for obstruction-free driving. We really don’t want more and more public highways to be turned over to motorised traffic only. Be careful what you wish for.
I am not advocating martyrdom. I don’t ride on roads as an act of defiance. I don’t allow my kids to cycle to school on roads as a form of protest. It’s all to do with practicality. Roads go everywhere so, as the Reid family is a cycling family, we accept that the majority of our riding will be on roads. Yes, we get bullied and buzzed by ignorant, uncaring motorists - which irks me no end - but segregated routes without a sea-change in driver attitudes, and stiff penalties for infractions, bring their own potential problems, such as turn zone crashes and other nasties.
Bikeability cycle training has the same ‘real world’ aim. It doesn’t teach kids how to ride on segregated cycle facilities, it teaches them how to cycle on roads. One of the weaknesses of ‘cycle proficiency’ was cycling lessons in playgrounds, not on roads.
We must not buckle when bullied. We should stand up for our rights. The UK road network does not belong to motorists, as I bang on about on iPayRoadTax.com and RoadsWereNotBuiltForCars.com, it belongs to us all. We must not cede rights in return for a few slivers of narrow tarmac bounded by kerbs.
I’m not against quality, NL-style bicycle infrastructure. Far from it. I’d love to see lots of extra facilities, it’s just I don’t want anything taken away. I want the cycle path and the road: I don’t want any cycling group to sign away my right to ride on roads.
A council could one day wrest an agreement from a local cycle group to cede rights on a certain road in return for a cycle facility close by. But will this facility be as useful as the existing road? Will cyclists get priority at junctions, or will they be bought off with fancy promises but then the actual facility adds time to commutes, fills with debris, and is eventually forgotten by the council? “Hey, we gave you bolshy cyclists your cycle facility, now stay off the rest of the local road network.”
If the current Government feels it can easily turn off cycling’s money, yet give £5000 sweeteners to rich buyers of electric cars, and spend billions on trunk roads and motorways in our supposed ‘age of austerity’, we’re not going to get very far by demanding infrastructure and pointing to countries where such infrastructure is either in place already or where it’s being installed. It’s easy for politicians to say ‘ah, yes, but that’s Amsterdam/New York City/Bogota, that won’t work here.’ Of course, it would work here - something Cycling England’s Cycling Demonstration Towns prove - but if this Government is happy to scrap the cheap-as-chips Cycling England and put nothing in its place, we’re up against an immovable foe. So, don’t fight this beast head-on, or alone. We have to be more subtle, more multi-faceted, more willing to align with other groups - such as pedestrian orgs - who also want to tame car speeds.
There are 245,000 miles of roads in the UK. Are those in favour of widespread segregation expecting 245,000 miles of segregated routes? That would cost billions upon billions.
No? Are pro-segregationists therefore asking for some lesser mileage of segregation? Yes? Me too. But at the same time we need to change motorists’ behaviour, not just lobby for miles and miles of raised kerbs and bollards. Without such a legally-enforced change in driver attitudes we wouldn’t get very far. Literally.
Of course, given that the current Transport Secretary believes he’s on a pro-motorist crusade, reining in drivers is also pretty much a pipe-dream but let’s keep our campaigning widely focussed, not fixated on a single issue such as segregation over all else. A good start would be to clamour for slower speed limits, curtailment of pavement parking (pavements can be considered segregated infrastructure for pedestrians, but that doesn’t stop motorists encroaching on this infrastructure), and the introduction of ’strict liability’, which would shift the insurance-related presumption for blame in car v bike incidents to motorists. Roadpeace and CTC are hot on this topic.
These measures, along with segregation, is what makes the Netherlands such a strong cycling country.
Segregation - which, I’ll stress again is a good thing…when done to a high standard - is merely one part of a much bigger picture. And part of that bigger picture is trying to work with the present administration. Sadly, Hammond is pro-car, pro-motorway and will splash just the barest minimum of cash on sustainable travel. No amount of starry-eyed optimism or we-can-make-it-happen-if-only-we-thought-big will change that. The political will for a radical rethink of urban transport in this country is just not there.
Building cycle infrastructure - like building any infrastructure – is a costly, long-term project. It needs politicians with a 20-50 year perspective but the great majority are short-termist, always looking at the quick fix, something that might get them elected next time round.
There’s no Ken Livingstone style figure waiting in the wings, ready to roll out cycle infrastructure if only he/she was given the chance. No mainstream political party in the UK is progressive enough to be truly pro-bicycle.
This doesn’t mean we should give up, but it does mean we have to be clever about what we push for. And we need to think strategically, rather than fixate on just one goal.
The 6th Century Chinese military leader Sun Tzu stressed the importance of positioning in strategy, and that position is affected both by objective conditions in the physical environment and the subjective opinions of competitive actors in that environment. In ‘The Art of War’ he wrote that strategic thinking requires quick and appropriate responses to changing conditions.
Cycle advocates need to have lots of weapons in their arsenal, not just one. Sun Tzu’s probable view of the ’segregation or nothing’ strategy? Easily defeated because not flexible enough.
Instead, how about pushing for lots of smaller goals? This is a stealth tactic that can work. For instance, in your locality, campaign for a certain road to be closed to traffic with bollards. Just one road. Not much to ask for. But then, after this success, pick another road and work hard on getting that closed to cars, too. Do this lots of times and, eventually, there will be a permeable network for cyclists.
By asking for too much, too soon, we don’t come over as pragmatic or sensible. But even our best arguments, our best weapons, won’t work on central Government as it stands: to propel the active travel agenda we have to stop pushing against the pricks. We’ll have to see the back of Hoverboard Hammond before any real progress can be made, and it will probably need a whole new administration before our arguments are genuinely heard again.
Caroline Lucas for transport secretary! Julian Huppert for minister in charge of cycling! Steven Norris and Lord Adonis as ’special advisors’! See, I can be a dreamer, too.
STRICT LIABILITY Take a look at this video I shot as part of an all-party parliamentary fact-finding visit to the Netherlands. It shows why ’strict liability’ is one of the, ahem, driving forces for better road manners. But it also shows Dutch cyclists aren’t all on fancy-schmancy segregated routes: much of the cycling portrayed is on roads. You know, with cars.