…er, last year. And the previous year saw the country grind to a standstill because of snow, too. In Scotland, the transport secretary fell on his cold-weather sword when the Scottish media piled on the pressure.
So far, Philip Hammond, the Westminster transport secretary, has retained the confidence of the PM. But this could change when the current flurry of news stories about Brits potentially missing Christmas get-togethers becomes a reality on 25th December.
Of course, Hammond is not a weather god, he can’t prevent the snow and it’s true that much of Europe - even in cities used to snowfall - is also paralysed.
But Hammond isn’t playing well to the media. He is not a happy snow-bunny and is coming across as increasingly grumpy in the TV interviews he’s being forced to do.
In one interview the other day he said the UK would have to evaluate whether to spend more money on “winter resilience” but that if such a course was necessary cuts would have to come from elsewhere.
Can I make a suggestion where these cuts could come from? How about scrapping the £300m to be gifted to rich car buyers, plumping for electric cars? After all, electric cars aren’t terribly good in cold weather. Turn on the heater and they massively reduce their range.
If somebody can splash £28,000 on an electric car it’s clear they’re loaded so why give them £5000 sweeteners to buy yet another car?
Of course, the reason the Government is giving wealthy middle class motorists such fat grants is because it promised car manufacturers it would subsidise electric car uptake. Nissan wouldn’t have placed production of the LEAF electric car in Sunderland if the UK government hadn’t made this promise.
But here’s a compromise. How about the £5000 grants only go to those car buyers who can show the electric car they’re buying will be their only car?
Naturally, this would lead to almost zero take-up. Those buying e-cars will be buying them as city runarounds and would recoil in horror at having to rely solely on an electric car, for long journeys as well as short. ‘Range anxiety’ exists, hence the need to offer subsidies. Subsidised e-cars will soon add to city congestion, curing nothing except shifting emissions elsewhere.
My beef isn’t with electric cars per se. I quite like them really, but they’re no panacea and yet they are portrayed as such. They are slightly greener than oil-dependent cars but coal-powered cars still take up same space as standard cars and putting more of them on the streets will do bugger all for congestion. For cities, we need more bikes, not more cars.
Subsidising motorists to add to congestion is not bright. Sadly, throwing £300m at rich motorists after abolishing Cycling England to save £200,000 a year, is not something that will bring down Hammond.
So, let’s hope snowfall - and missed Christmases - does the job instead. Hammond is a car-centric transport secretary (he’s no convert to trains, despite his HS2 announcements) and he needs to go, to be replaced with somebody who actually wants the job and who can see beyond a windscreen view of the world.
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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.