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 -
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.