Pointless infighting

I spent an interesting hour or so yesterday discussing cycling in London, and the potential implications of the new strategy appearing from Transport for London, with Jack Thurston of the Bike Show, Bill Chidley, and Trevor Parsons of Hackney Cycling Campaign. You can listen to what we had to say this evening on Resonance FM, although be warned, it does get a bit nerdy.

It turns out that Bill has recently written an interesting critical piece which addresses, in part, my recent blog article about the legacy of historical attitudes in cycling campaigning, ‘No Surrender’. I started forming a comment response, but it soon morphed out into a larger piece that I thought would be better served here (that’s me being wordy again!).

The general thrust of Bill’s piece is a critique of infighting amongst cycling groups and individuals – ‘two bald men fighting over a comb’, as the article is titled. The strongest criticism is reserved for Freewheeler of Crap Waltham Forest, about which I don’t have a lot to say, for the main reason that it doesn’t really concern me. Bill quotes Freewheeler as arguing that

I am not suggesting arson as the route to mass cycling but I do think that cyclists need to consider challenging the status quo in other ways than tea and biscuits at the Town Hall…  Non-violent direct action stunts are long overdue in British cycle campaigning.

We chatted about this a little before we went on air yesterday; I’m of the opinion that taking to the streets can be very useful indeed, as long as it does not appear to be confrontational and deliberately difficult. I think critical mass rides in London – which I have occasionally attended – fall into this trap. Whatever message there is gets lost in the aggro. By contrast, I went on the Blackfriars ‘Flashrides’ in 2011, and on the LCC’s Big Ride, precisely because they had a clear message, and were more consensual.

Much of the rest of Bill’s article is fair, and indeed by the sounds of it (and from our discussion yesterday, both in the studio, and later in the pub) there’s probably not much disagreement between us. However he attributes some opinions to me that I don’t really hold; perhaps that’s my fault for a lack of clarity in my original article.

Bill takes me to task for stating that Hackney’s modal share is not all that significant, pointing out that it is the highest in London. That’s true, of course, but I suppose I was pointing out that Hackney’s modal share is not all that significant in a European context. A modal share of 8% is just miserable by Dutch standards. So the idea that Hackney represents the way to a cycle track-free future strikes me as a bit overblown.

Granted, it is much better to cycle in Hackney than in most other London boroughs – something I am always happy to acknowledge – but it is perverse to insist that, because Hackney is the best place to cycle in one of the worst cities in western Europe for cycling, it should be some kind of template. Hackney does many good things, particularly filtered permeability, which makes residential streets pleasant to cycle on, but the main roads in the borough are intimidating, even for a fairly hardened cyclist like me, and the insistence on keeping cycle tracks out of the borough is unreasonable.

Beyond Hackney, I also think Bill slightly misinterprets the point of my ‘No Surrender’ piece. He writes

It is a several thousand word treatise on what is wrong with the CTC, and how the CTC’s tactics, historically and currently, are undermining the efforts to get more people cycling.

The proposition that because the CTC once espoused ‘bad’ policies, that the CTC is irrecoverably ‘broken’ as an organisation long after the main characters responsible for the policy (or policies) are dead is not really sustainable.

The first paragraph is broadly correct, with the exception that I wasn’t writing exclusively about the CTC, or focusing on them, as much as that might have appeared to be the case. My intention was specifically to write about an attitude that the CTC leadership demonstrated in the past, and might, arguably, still hold today. Namely, that the roads are for bicycles, and any attempts to separate modes, or to put bicycles ‘out of the way’ of cars, giving cars free reign on the roads, is unacceptable. Closely connected to this belief is the attitude that cycle tracks, particularly in urban areas, represent an abandonment of roads and streets motor vehicles.

Naturally enough, I think these attitudes are wrong, for reasons I won’t go into here, mainly because I’ve done so at length many times before (as have others). But these beliefs weren’t, and still aren’t, the exclusive preserve of one organisation. I wasn’t out to ‘get’ the CTC; I was critiquing this particular philosophy, not an organisation.

So for that reason I don’t think the second paragraph – which suggests I believe that the CTC is ‘irrecoverably broken’ because of what happened in the 1930s – is fair. It’s perfectly possible for organisations to change; they aren’t necessarily stuck for life to any one particular idea. The LCC – of which I am a member – is a good example. It’s changed beyond measure over the last two to three years.

Instead of suggesting that this is the way to redesign our streets -

Picture courtesy of LCC

Picture courtesy of LCC

They’ve come up with a bold, inclusive vision of cycling for all, which draws heavily on best continental practice.

Even as recently 2010, Mark Ames was having to ask whether the LCC

are really pushing for cycle lanes and segregation on the busy main roads or not?

So the LCC have changed strategy considerably. But what about the CTC?

In 2009, they were arguing that

Cycle tracks away from roads fine if direct and/or attractive for leisure cycling. But alongside urban streets they are rarely suitable. Traffic restraint is best: capacity, parking, pricing.

Cycle tracks are apparently only suitable as connecting routes away from streets; all urban streets should remain the preserve of cyclists mixing with motor traffic.

I can’t think of any other explanation for this kind of attitude beyond the historically-influenced reluctance to ‘surrender’ roads, which my original piece talked about. Of course, it is now absurdly out of step with the emerging consensus, particularly in London, that cycle tracks are an essential and necessary intervention to civilise urban streets, and for making cycling an option for all.

The CTC are adapting, slowly, to this consensus – indeed they are being forced to. So to that extent they are not ‘irrecoverably broken’.

However, I think they are considerably hampered by the attitudes of much of their membership, and by the inertia of decades of this form of campaigning, which dismissed continental approaches as unworkable in the UK.

The reason I and many others have criticised the CTC is not just for the fun of it; it’s specifically because they have had – and still have – bad policies. The Hierarchy of Provision is flawed. Dual networks are flawed. Attempting to get most people to ‘share the road’ is flawed.

Pointing this out does not imply that I think that the CTC are solely responsible for the current state of affairs, with desperately low modal share and rubbish infrastructure. Of course it doesn’t. But their policies certainly don’t help, and those policies needed to be criticised, so that better policy gets implemented. Whether you characterise this as pointless infighting, or a constructive way of moving things forward, is up to you.

This entry was posted in CTC, Cycling Embassy Of Great Britain, Cycling policy, Hackney, Hierarchy of Provision, History, Infrastructure, LCC, London, Promotion, Subjective safety, The Netherlands, Transport for London. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Pointless infighting

  1. Jitensha Oni says:

    This annoys me more than any other topic you bloggers and campaigners go on about. Let me give you the perspective of a “customer” or end user of what the campaigners are campaigning for, but who essentially just wants to cycle in peace, with other like minded folk, including my kids. What have people like your acquaintances achieved to further the “in peace” part? What they appear to be satisfied with is a bit of tinkering with conditions for the 2% who do cycle despite the advers conditions – and they haven’t done that very well except for a few massively over-hyped off-road paths (which would be minor routes in Europe). Looking (again) at the graph of cycle usage in the UK, the old guard of campaigners have presided over a 20 year slide to absolute rock bottom and then 20 years of stagnation; they have allowed allowed poor infrastructure to be installed; have not prevented a fall in driving standards; and now have the gall to criticise you newer guys who actually appear to be getting something done to get more people cycling.

    I’m a dedicated cyclist but my family, like most of the population, are not – they will only generally join me on a bike off-road or when we are in Europe. And there they do so willingly and happily. Why not in the UK? Because they haven’t been encouraged by anything your old boys think they have achieved. So as a “customer” and with my family as “potential customers”, from where I sit, the old guard have achieved decades of abject failure to improve matters for cyclists and get more on bikes. I’m more than happy to see them retire and let experts in the techniques of civilising streets rather than rhetoric take over.

    Pointless infighting? No, not as long as it gets rid of the dead wood. Meanwhile Hembrow’s clock carries on ticking… 40 years and 42 days.

    • I have nothing to add right now – but I agree with everything Jitensha Oni has written here.

    • moth78 says:

      You say “the old guard of campaigners have… allowed allowed poor infrastructure to be installed; have not prevented a fall in driving standards; …” and just sound absurd to me. I was not aware that the roads lobby, central government, council highways departments and uk drivers had delegated these powers to cycling campaigners. Is it really all their fault? (I’d be astonished, but i admit i honestly don’t know.)

      Nor do I see how you can attribute the current rise of cycling to the Go Dutch faction. Have we actually got any Dutch style infrastructure yet?

  2. Arthur says:

    I see in the posting above you’ve left off the last, rather woolly, line ” The changes we might start to see in London would suggest the latter.” Is there a reason for this?

    I’d say that direct action is by far the best way forward. I’d like to see all cyclists (who own cars) to get into their cars for as many journeys as possible, one day a week, every week, for as long as it takes. Pick Monday’s as those are the days other drivers most dislike and so the day they’ll most get upset about.

    Keep at it, in cars, till all levels of government HAVE to do something about cycling infrastructure to get you to leave your cars behind again. I’d look to agree a 5 point plan in advance and say there’s no stopping till all 5 points are both agreed to and budgeted for, and work has started on implementing them.

    Although local/regional/national government all say they care about cycling and reducing car use, they won’t make it a priority until you make them make it a priority. Words won’t do. You have to make them change.

    • @angus_fx says:

      I’m not sure that cycling’s modal share in most of London is enough that people would notice a difference – especially in the outer boroughs, who are in most need of a kick up the backside in regard to tackling motorism. London’s traffic trends are hard to fathom (declining car mileage per individual but rising population), but over a few years it can easily change enough to bring about the effect you’re looking for by itself — or cancel out the effect of any protest entirely. My feeling is that direct action does as much, or more, to bring cyclists together as a community than it does to advance our cause with others.. right now the London government & TfL have put some good stuff on the table, seems only fair to give them time to deliver before calling for more Flashrides and suchlike. It’s part of the picture certainly, but doesn’t work in isolation.

      Seems to me that the local authorities – who both hold the majority of the power, and have to do the majority of the work – are the least amenable to change. It’s much easier for the Mayor to give directives to increase cycling’s modal share than a council to block off a rat run or remove parking against the councillors’ own instincts and residents’ wishes. But so far I’m not aware of any effective cycling direct actions targeting them… a Critical Mass of the suburbs?

  3. The thing is, cycle campaigning is not a monolith – most individuals under the big tent of “cyclist” would agree that more cycling and safer cycling are important, but there are a variety of theories regarding how one can achieve that. Certain individuals who are more established than myself, and who have larger mouthpieces than a Twitter feed with fewer than 600 followers, would have you believe that a unified voice is the key to having the attention of authority figures, but if I were to take another “campaign area”, one could find a multitude of superficially similar campaign groups that have tangible and distinct differences in their agendas, and therefore the groups may agree on certain ideas, but one group may be completely ignorant of a particular nuance within that area, or have completely different tactics. (This can be a particular problem with the dreaded H word). Politicians deal with multiple campaign groups for other significant and ongoing issues, why should cycling be any different? Having said that, a coordinated campaign whereby a “multi-pronged” approach (which can cover everything from guerilla traffic engineering to petitions) plays on the relative strengths of different groups and individuals can good, in theory at least.

    The current debate regarding equal marriage would be a good example of an issue with is more multifaceted than it may appear, insofar as it is actually same sex marriage rather than equal marriage being considered – and there are differences between the two phases. The more privileged individuals within any given movement are, the more isolated they risk becoming from the more vulnerable persons that come under their remit, and the more they risk projecting their own voice and not allowing room for others. Whilst some vehicularists may sound somewhat gloatful about having gone “x years without incident”, this is not the reality for everyone. It is somewhat akin to a cycling equivalent of the “It Gets Better” campaign, albeit in a way that is not just more emotionally detached, but actively tries to shout over opposition from those individuals who quite rightly feel oppressed and intimidated by motor traffic. We should not expect people to just “put up with it” in hostile cycling environments any more than we should implore disabled people to stop sitting around at home and “get out there” where they may face harassment.

    And the rise of social media has allowed cycle campaigning to become less monolithic – time was that one would need to write to the editor of a campaign newsletter, and then hope that the editor would be sympathetic enough to your views to publish it the following month. Then we saw the use of proto social media such as Yahoo Groups. These represented a significant leap forward but were often still dominated by the same old voices. However, over the past few years, the current era of cycle campaigning has been effectuated by blogging and Twitter – the old guard of vehicularists, while occasionally creeping up, have effectively been left behind as the voice of campaigners now represents a more inclusive and comprehensive approach to not just cycling, but the urban realm.

    We are now entering the post-vehicular era (in terms of ideology if not actual cycling technique) which is breaking down the old assumptions and myths, whilst presenting a much more accessible public face. Instead of ridiculing people’s laziness or environmental insensitivity, we are accepting of the fact that people will choose the mode of transport that feels right for them, being respectful of multi-modal travel, whilst combating the wider systematic bias towards mass motorisation. It is less individualistic than vehicularism and yet capable of enabling a greater demographic of cyclists – those individuals who are not white men and thus are less willing to undermine their limited social capital by using a systematically deprivileged mode of transport. (Or in other words, the established white middle class have nothing to prove; other people may need to play catch-up.)

    In regards to pointless infighting, one merely has to look at the typical online spat between feminists (which occasionally spills out into national newspapers) to see how insubstantial this whole “splitting cycling” thing actually is, at least compared with other organisations (eg the SWP). What is clear from any comparision with feminism is that classic vehicularism (Franklin, Forrester, John S Allan, etc) is largely about the legalities of a situation, which is somewhat analogous to first and second wave feminism, whereas what I am now calling “post-vehicularism” (basically, the Dutch model) is akin to fourth wave feminism in that it is intersectional, in that one is not just a cyclist behaving as a “vehicle operator” (to use arcane American terminology), but an actual person with actual fears, who does other things as well. New cyclists cannot automatically be expected to be “tree-huggers”, and they may have an even dimmer view of the legal system than most cyclists do (with the exception of a few Stockholm Syndrome vehicularists).

    So in essence, the CTC have done quite a bit of good but been laggards in certain areas. Don’t allow their power base and prestige (relative to you as an individual of course, in the grand scheme of things they’re still quite small) to put you off from voicing an opposing view. Remember that different groups have different social and financial relations to sources of political power – the CTC may not be the most vocal group, but Lord Berkeley has given one of their staff a parliamentary pass, something an upstart group would find almost impossible to acquire. Sustrans are in a similar position in some regards. Hence the mention of a multi-pronged approach with “official” and “guerilla” channels. If you feel conflicted, draw a Venn diagram of “you” and “group X”. and categorise certain statements of theirs according to who agrees with them. If the overlapping region is empty, you would be advised to go elsewhere. If there is a significant overlap, but with some minor disagreement, than you are in a better position to effect change from within, especially if the group is relatively small.

  4. I like the in-fighting. It keeps it interesting. More in-fighting!

    • Within reason, of course…

      • “Within reason, of course…”

        Bloody integrationists!

        What about those of us who want to be segregated from reason?

        On a less facetious note, good post and I have to agree with Jitensha Oni above and disagree with your comment about Critical Mass.

        I’ve never perceived CM rides as anything other than a lot of different groups of friends all going for a ride together. CM is about what you bring to it and there are those who bring confrontation (well, TBF, its not exactly hard to find amongst the self entitled motorists around town).

        I think we need to take direct action and bring a monthly event like the Bagota Ciclovia to London. Not just some poncy occasional SkyRide once in a blue moon, where everyone is enforced to wear hiviz bibs (or cloaks of invincibility) and helmets, but locking off an area so people can ride how they wish, without any fear of motorised traffic.

        Watch this and tell me you wouldnt want it in London once a month? http://www.streetfilms.org/ciclovia/

        It would be great to have classes and workshops there as well (exercise and/or dance and bike maintenance/rider training, market stalls/street food, etc).

        We need to reclaim the streets and sitting around waiting for either central/city governments to sort it, or for selfish individuals in cars to back off, is just never going to happen and its certainly not going to come from the old farts who have presided over the stagnation of cycling in this country for the last few decades.

        They need to GTFO of the way and let people through who care, and actually want to do something about the situation.

        What about those of us who want to be segregated from reason?

        On a less facetious note, good post and I have to agree with Jitensha Oni above and disagree with your comment about Critical Mass.

        I’ve never perceived CM rides as anything other than a lot of different groups of friends all going for a ride together. CM is about what you bring to it and there are those who bring confrontation (well, TBF, its not exactly hard to find amongst the self entitled motorists around town).

        I think we need to take direct action and bring a monthly event like the Bagota Ciclovia to London. Not just some poncy occasional SkyRide once in a blue moon, where everyone is enforced to wear hiviz bibs (or cloaks of invincibility) and helmets, but locking off an area so people can ride how they wish, without any fear of motorised traffic.

        Watch this and tell me you wouldnt want it in London once a month? http://www.streetfilms.org/ciclovia/

        It would be great to have classes and workshops there as well (exercise and/or dance and bike maintenance/rider training, market stalls/street food, etc).

        We need to reclaim the streets and sitting around waiting for either central/city governments to sort it, or for selfish individuals in cars to back off, is just never going to happen and its certainly not going to come from the old farts who have presided over the stagnation of cycling in this country for the last few decades.

        They need to GTFO of the way and let people through who care, and actually want to do something about the situation.

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