Civilise the car!

Driving while distracted with cellphone

“The car’s high speed, particularly relative to walking, creates an aggressiveness that must be constrained. Certainly it has not been possible to rely on the self-restraint of the individual motorist, whose motoring decision-making is usually singularly self-centred.

“For a while it was thought that simply providing more and more street space was the solution. But this has rarely proved effective, and one of the major advances in recent times has been the use of a restricted street system to forcibly civilize the car.”

Strong stuff. Must have been written by a Bolshevik bicyclist? A sandal-chewing, lentil-wearing hippy? An Autogeddonist? A car-hating loon?


It’s from a book by Maxwell Gordon Lay, author of Handbook of Road Technology and Ways of the World: A History of the World’s Roads and the vehicles that used them.

His car credentials include being Executive Director of the Australian Road Research Board and he was Chairman of the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria.

Scorchers and Bloomers

At the weekend I learned I’d been successful in landing a grant for some research on the history of roads. I’ve been doing an awful lot of snooping around for, especially on the contribution cyclists made to get better roads from the 1880s onwards.

During my picture research I came across a whole load of sheet music covers from the 1890s. These include rhapsodies to the US ‘Good Roads’ movement, organised the League of American Wheelmen. The sheet music also includes songs and dances featuring scorching and bloomers. I’ve created an e-book with some of these images, and commissioned my kids’ piano teacher to resurrect ‘The Scorcher’ from 1897.

Greg Johnston did a great, foot-tapping job. An MP3 of ‘The Scorcher’ is embedded into the clicky-flicky version on the ebook below, and is also available via my iTunes podcast feed.

2010: Volcanic ash grounds European flights 1817: Volcanic ash helped create the bicycle

Drais and Volcano

Thanks to volcanic explosions in Iceland, much of Europe has been an aviation-free zone for nearly a week, showing what ash can do to transport.

A larger volcanic episode in 1815 might also have had an impact on transport: it might have been the impetus for the creation of the bicycle.

In 1815, the ash from the eruption of Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia, led to a change in global weather. 1816 was ‘the year without summer’ in which severe summer climate abnormalities destroyed crops in Northern Europe and North America.

The shortage of oats meant less food for horses. In Germany, Baron Karl von Drais started his search for a form of transport that didn’t rely on oats. By the following year he had created a horse-substitute, one that did not rely on oats. His Draisine ‘running machine’ was the start of the modern bicycle. It morphed into the ‘hobby horse’ which took another fifty years for pedals, brakes and a diamond steel frame to evolve into what we would recognise as a bicycle. But, without Mount Tambora’s ash, Baron von Drais might have got his oats and kept to an equestrian mount.

Labour and Tories wimp out on cycling; UKIP doesn’t

Cambridge April  9285

Let me put something on record. I wouldn’t vote for a political party that promised to be the bees knees for cycling. I might be a bike geek but I have wider interests than just cycling.

Even if one of the parties said it would radically reduce car usage, bring in Strict Liability, and make it easier for everybody to ride bikes (not even the Green party goes that far…) it still wouldn’t make me vote for them if their other policies were pants.

I understand where the CTC is coming from in its Vote Bike campaign but I’m not interested in single-issue politics. Voting for the party that’s going to be bolshie on bankers or good for organic farming or ace on street cleaning (“tough on grime, tough on the causes of grime”) is not terribly good for society as a whole. I’ll look at all the policies, download all the manifestos, weigh up all the pros and cons, and then vote for the party that my parents voted for.

I’m happy with this. My parents aren’t party activists but their attitude to societal fairness obviously impressed me. They voted for the party that was “for the people” not “me, me, me.”

When the TV news does a story on budget day I don’t get out my calculator and work out how much I’m going to be better or worse off. I want to know how much is going to be spent on hospitals, on roads, on schooling, not whether a silly little tax allowance will enable me to buy half an iPad in three months’ time.

I don’t want to know what politicians are going to do for me. I want to know what they are going to do for all of us. Little Englander politics are a big turn off.

But where do the big parties stand on the major issues? It’s all blurred of late. David Cameron is in favour of Big Society (not terribly sure he’s got full party backing for that one) and yesterday Gordon Brown says we’re all middle class now.

Which is now the party for the people and which is the “me, me, me” party? It’s confusing.

What’s not confusing is what political parties are leaving out of their manifestos. Climate change, for instance, is getting just lip service from the major parties.

Transport is also being neglected. Cycling got the tiniest of mentions in the Labour and Conservative manifestos.

With parties vying for the attention of Mondeo-man it’s clear there were never going to be any big announcements about road pricing or other tough measures. This is OK. Transport is not a vote winner, and not exactly seen as a plum Ministerial department either, although Lord Adonis seems to be the best transport minister we’ve ever had, and not just because he’s a stick-thin cyclist.

Whichever party gets in, it’s obvious that the easiest Department to trim in one fell swoop is transport: cull a few miles of motorway and there’s billions of pounds saved straight away. The two main parties aren’t saying this in their manifestos. The LibDem manifesto – launched tomorrow – won’t say it either. UPDATE: In fact, the LibDem manifesto does mention road pricing, but not until a following term, which is a wishy-washy cop-out even by LibDem standards. The LibDems also want to phase out Vehicle Excise Duty.

ukip transport

I’m no fan of the UK Independence Party but as they unelectable they can say what other parties fear to voice. Most of the time this is right-wing claptrap but dotted through UKIP’s mostly bonkers manifesto there’s the odd bit of common-sense.

Legislate to introduce a crime of Vehicular Manslaughter, where for those whose excessively dangerous driving makes death on the road a near certainty.

Perfect. Except it’s a pearl in amongst an awful lot of infertile and rancid oysters.

As I said, I wouldn’t vote for a party based on their cycle policies but if I needed reasons not to vote for UKIP – and I don’t – there’s plenty here:

UKIP supports pedal cycles as a healthy means of personal transport, but…we believe that there needs to be a better balance of rights and responsibilities for pedal cyclists, with too much aggressive abuse of red lights, pedestrian crossings and a lack of basic safety and road courtesy.

UKIP would consult on the desirability of minimum third party liability insurance cover for cyclists – a simple annual flat rate registration ‘Cycledisc’, stuck to the bicycle frame, to cover damage to cars and others, which are currently unprotected. The Cycledisc should also carry clear identification details, which will help counter bicycle theft, and deter dangerous cyclist behaviour. We support provision of cycle parking at reasonable charges.

Cyclediscs? Sounds an awful lot like the cycle registration plates once espoused by Ken Livingstone when he was London mayor, but which he later dropped when it was pointed out bicycles are not motorbikes: they don’t have big back-ends on which to attach legible numberplates. As I expand upon on, when somebody calls for cyclists to be registered, pay ‘road tax’ and apply for licences to cycle, they don’t want to share the road with lots of licensed, fee-paying cyclists, they want less cyclists full-stop.

And what’s that about paying for cycle parking? UKIP is kidding, right? Cars have acres and acres of free off-street parking to choose from but cyclists have to pay? That’ll fly.

UKIP believes that basic cycle and safety training should be made mandatory, and be funded in schools or via local authorities.

Sounds great. But it’s not cycle training for every citizen in the UK – which would make a huge difference to road safety – it’s cycle training just for, er, cyclists. How about mandatory pedestrian training? Red light breaching by pedestrians is so endemic as to be invisible.

Cycling on safe cycle routes, lanes, tracks and trails should be actively encouraged, particularly as a leisure pursuit. UKIP believes off road dedicated lanes are preferable to a confusing maze of cycle lanes on unsuitable or dangerous roads, which is problematic for cyclists as well as other road users.

This one doesn’t need much decoding: Get. Off. My. Road.

Local authorities should be given additional powers to enforce a ‘cyclists dismount’ or ‘no cycling’ regulation where there are safety concerns – such as on busy roundabouts, junctions or bus lanes, or where the road would be too narrowed by cycle lanes and cause unacceptable delays to traffic.

What, enforce those stupid, idiotic, crazy ‘cyclists dismount’ signs? Oy! No cycling over roundabouts or over junctions? No cycling on roads, then?

And what’s that about “unacceptable delays to traffic?” First, bikes are part of the traffic, they just aren’t powered by motors. Second, it’s not bikes causing all the congestion, it’s cars, and buses and lorries. Bikes are slim; motorised traffic ain’t. And e-cars are not the answer. Electric vehicles are not a solution to congestion, but they do make the jams quieter.

OK, so that’s the Monster Raving Looney Party out of the way, what about Labour? Well, 13 years of fudging on transport tell us all we want to know, really. The car remains king; sustainable forms of transport will be thrown a few crumbs. The Labour manifesto has a para on free swimming lessons but just half a sentence about cycling.

Cycle hire animation - Boris Johnson

So, how about the Tories? David Cameron and Boris Johnson are high-profile cyclists so the Conservatives must want to be seen to be pro-bike? Not a bit of it. At least there’s more of a whole sentence on cycling from the Tories but if it wasn’t for the PDF keyword search facility I’d’ve missed the mention.

tory transport

Which is oh-so-different to 2007. Back then the Tories were far enough away from the election to say things they wouldn’t dream of saying now. John Gummer MP and Zac Goldsmith, editor of The Ecologist magazine, chaired the Quality of Life Policy Group and interviewed 500 people to come up with Blueprint for a Green Economy. This was meant to make it into the Conservative manifesto. Read it and you’ll see why it didn’t make the cut:

The many social and environmental benefits of walking and cycling have been catalogued for years, most recently in terms of averting the contemporary crises of environmental damage, congestion, and obesity. The wider role of these ‘soft modes’, walking in particular, has been promoted as a means of bringing about an urban renaissance, in which streets become pleasant places to walk, meet and talk. It is also argued that small schemes to promote walking and cycling might reduce congestion more cost-effectively than road-building or national road user charging.

Nor is analysis lacking upon the reasons for the relative decline of cycling and walking, which is attributed directly to car-based land-use planning. The creation of dispersed shopping, work and leisure centres is the opposite of the clustered, high density local facilities most conducive to non-motorised transport. In road design, cyclists’ and walkers’ needs are often considered as an afterthought.

…walking and cycling should be given higher priority in central government guidance to local authorities. Cycling England should be given a fair chance to achieve its objectives including the dedication of extra financial resources. Sustainable modes should be given specific funding priority. Government should work alongside professional bodies and voluntary organisations to disseminate best practice, including the marketing of walking and cycling, and their incorporation into travel plans.

The use of bicycles could be further extended, particularly for older people, by the electric bicycle that has been much improved, particularly in the Netherlands. The present law is still confusing and an incoming Conservative government should clarify it so that all electric bicycles, including the ‘twist and go’ variety, should be classified as bicycles and not as motor vehicles. In the countryside these significantly improved products might well provide an alternative to the motor car for some travelling shorter distances to work and a number of major companies are at present considering using them as part of their travel plans.

There are many ways in which promoting urban cycling can be imaginative, appealing and surprisingly cost-effective…

Yes, those really are the words from a Conservative Party policy group. Shame they never made it into the manifesto. And shame, too, that Zac Goldsmith turned so pro-car when he became a Tory candidate. Power corrupts.

Sue of Oz has lid law case quashed

In Australia, bicycle helmets are compulsory for all cyclists. Last year, Sue Abbott, a doctor’s wife of rural New South Wales, decided to fight a AU$54 helmet fine, spending thousands of dollars in a legal challenge. She rides a Dutch-style sit-up-and-beg bike and doesn’t feel she need a helmet when cycling slowly around her small home town.

She lost her case, as can be seen in this video:

She decided to appeal. Last week, she won.

I know this because Sue just told me via a comment on one of yesterday’s stories.

“The judge quashed my conviction! I am no longer a criminal!

“Given that Australia has no human rights provisions whatsoever, I had to argue the ‘defence of necessity’ – very narrow…but the judge agreed that I had the ‘necessary belief’ and that my ‘response was proportional’ but he couldn’t agree with the ‘imminent peril’ element that I raised.

“He said I was too much at the vanguard with my catastrophic climate change argument, and he felt I had other alternatives like push my bike 8km if i couldn’t walk and carry my shopping. 2km are on dirt…I don’t think so!

“The judge urged me to apply for an exemption from the roads and traffic authority which I have done on therapeutic grounds and grounds of civil liberties. I haven’t heard back yet but will chase them after Easter.

“Whatever the outcome, I’ll then proceed to the office of the ombudsman, and then maybe the UN, and then maybe Ii’ll get a law job! That is if anyone will employ me – I think people think I’m a trouble-maker…”

It’s unlikely Sue’s victory could be used to repeal Australia’s mandatory helmet law but no doubt other individuals could follow her example and use her case as a precedent for other jurisdictions to consider.