Wednesday 12 January 2011

cycling revolution - reality check

Firstly apologies for long pause in posting. As you all now I was out riding all day on my new bike. When I wasn’t riding my bicycle I was devouring massive amounts of posts my fellow bicycle bloggers were producing. Some of them where really amazing, some were annoying, because they were about the stuff I wanted to write about. Which is good, because it seems we share similar views.

The charming weather outside is taking it’s toll on me, this and the deepening depression caused by reading freewheelers rants made me reflect on the present and the future of mass cycling in London and UK. Let me just say that it’s overall even more depressing, however if it’s my feeling low influencing my views or my views influencing my depression I don’t know. Yet let’s not forget there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that the spring and summer for cycling are yet to come.

WARNING – this is a long post

There have been few things bothering me about the stance of the government regarding the situation on the road. Hardly anyone misses the fact that if you are not in a car you are usually 2nd or even 3rd category citizen at best. This is the result of waging the “war on motorists” apparently started by the Labour and now made to end my Tories. Many bloggers have been writing about the utter nonsense of calling it a war on motorists and that such thing never existed. If there were any nuisances created for the drivers they were

_ well compensated for by the comfort and privileges they get
_ a simple compensation for the damage the extremely high car usage has brought to the city

Now these changes are to be reversed. Which will create more congestion, more frustration, worse air pollution, and will generally decrease the quality of living in London and everywhere else to be frank.
Plus it’s a general misunderstanding to call people who use a car for transport motorists, just as calling people who use bicycles cyclists. It creates divisions and that’s really what it is about. This is not the way forward. We are all people, sharing the same space and choosing different modes of transport. What we need is a better awareness of how our choice affects ourselves and everyone else and infrastructure that values all choices in the same way. At the moment if you choose the car you are massively better off – however the cost to the society and most importantly for yourself is quite high.

The car is a very useful machine (even though it creates a lot of problems at the same time) – it’s convenient, fast, safe (for it’s user) and highly practical. Yet what needs to be said is that it proves to be useless in dense urban areas for the simple reason that there’s never going to be enough room for everyone to have a car. Yet by discouraging other modes of transport (crowded and overpriced PT, poor quality cycle provisions, cluttered and narrow pavements) we encourage more people to drive. And they do – not because they are bad or they don’t care (even if some don’t) but because of convenience. 90% of the population don’t want to be heroes – they simply want to live their lives in comfort, which the car offers to them.

What’s left unsaid is that once people who drive get out of their cars they have to use crappy pavements, cover long distances on foot – which is the effect of taking space away from people to give them to cars. It baffles me why people don’t oppose – but then it’s probably because it’s compensated by the comfort of the car and some people simply hardly get out of them.

Now to change this situation a different approach is needed. And it’s a revolutionary one. This approach means that the space is divided according to the needs of different users. By allowing and making different transport modes equal you create an alternative for people to choose from. Yet provisions for all need to be made of the same quality.

Why is this important? Because while people don’t want to be heroes, some genuinely want to cycle. They know about the benefits, they are willing to do it and their situation permits them to.  According to this post the demographics are shaped in such a way that the current levels of people cycling fall in a very tiny percentage of the population. These are the people who already cycle – be it the sporty type or the utility type. They share the will to do so – some regardless of the circumstances. Obviously there’s also a group that would never cycle, period. This accounts for about 33% of population of Portland and I believe it’s somewhat similar in London. Now between the 8% of population who already cycle and the 33% of people who wouldn’t no matter what there is around 60% that would provide they were feeling safe and convenient.  Unless this requisite is met cycling will not go up from the 2-3%, which it is at, at the moment.

This is because we’ve hit the barrier – all the cycling campaigns have been focusing on getting this small percentage of people on bikes. It’s easy when someone really wants to cycle. All the provisions the cycle campaigns want are sufficient to keep these people happy (oh, they like to complain, sure but that doesn’t mean that the status quo isn’t to their liking). What’s more disturbing is that the cycling campaigns are made up of people who cycle, so in the end they campaign for people who already cycle. They campaign for provisions adequate for less then 9% of the population. How do I know that – because people vote with their bikes the modal share remains at 2-3%. What other proof do you need?
And people are not lazy either – a lot of people go to gyms after work to get exercise that the bike would give them. Yet the concern about their safety doesn’t allow them. It’s really hard to take risks when you are the sole breadwinner and you have kids. Trust me.  Thus a new type of cycling campaign must be born. A group of people that caters for the 66% of population that requires something else than painted lanes, which cars ignore. A campaign that is not afraid of calling the  emperor’s naked and doesn’t dismiss examples from successful countries in Europe and lobbies to create comprehensive and high quality provisions.

Unless this happens we will be stuck with organisations who want well for their members of course, but who refuse to see that they marginalise cycling in effect. Plus they propagate the tired old myths about good cycling infrastructure: “we live in an ancient city” as if Amsterdam or Copenhagen we all built in the 20th century, “cycle tracks are dangerous” as if roads were safer, “there’s no political will” – well no, since nor you nor anyone else is lobbying for them how can there be, “it would cost billions” – billions less then the car infrastructure, plus how much does it cost to take one lane away from motor vehicles and put a kerb there so it’s not flouted on every occasion.

The light I mentioned at the beginning is the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain established by Jim from Lo Fidelity Bicycle Club.  It seems that out of frustration born from interaction with the cycling campaigns a new kind of lobby is born. I am keenly following the embassy and will personally get involved to help them out.

The biggest challenge in front of any such attempt is getting through to the general public. Let’s face it most of people who read cycle blogs are people who ride bikes anyway.  While they’re of course not to be neglected the target audience are people who don’t. This is not about safety in numbers anymore – it’s about political force. And it’s not about getting people on bikes straight away either – they won’t until the road space is given to them to ride their bikes not worried about people driving their cars carelessly. It’s about getting people to write to their representatives and demand safe bicycle infrastructure to create liveable city.

There is hope since more and more people start buying practical bikes. There are more and more people writing about what to buy. While you might thinks it’s not relevant to mass cycling I think otherwise. The choice of bicycle determines its uses. A sporty bike will appeal to a user at first but will demonstrate its limitations quite soon becoming a toy rather then a tool.  On the other hand a practical utility bike will be used a lot, for different purposes, proving a great investment. It will also prove to others around you that a car is not a necessity. People buying practical bikes drag riding bikes out of the niche sport cycling and the campaigns have pushed it into.  No nonsense, no lycra just utilitarian tool. This in turn makes more people want to ride bikes, which in turn benefits them all.

While it’s important to get people who don’t ride bikes on them it’s also important to get people who already ride to act. The fact that the only voice belongs to the old cycling campaigns means that the status quo will be maintained. And there’s a lot anyone of us can do. For example the LIP consultation in the City of London. Any of us can write to their MP and councillors. It’s time to change the PR problem of the bicycle by showing the authorities that normal people want to ride their bikes safely on well designed cycle tracks.

PS. I am trying to help the Embassy by creating a visual campaign aimed to highlight the benefits of using bicycle for transport – all ideas welcome.

I wish you all  Happy New Year on your bicycle.


  1. Great stuff and thanks for the mention.

    We need to be appealing to the 97% that potentially want to cycle, as opposed to just appeasing the approx 3% that already do.

    This is about trying a new and fresh approach otherwise something as simple as riding a bicycle will look ever more dangerous and complicated. Keep up the good work.

  2. thanks for dropping by Jim. This creates a unique opportunity for the embassy to move the focus of campaigning to the rest of the population. Also I feel that the time is right - with rising prices there are more people pressurized into dropping cars - let's try an make this a pleasant experience.

  3. Bravo ndru! Really well thought out and heartfelt stuff. I find it personally encouraging that I see more and more people writing and thinking this sort of thing out here in the blogosphere. I only hope the people who count are listening!

  4. Thanks Mark. As I said I doubt bicycle blogs have an impact on the outside world. However I do hope that they change the mindset of some of the people who already cycle. Just to keep in mind: getting to 10% modal share might be difficult, then it keeps getting easier and faster.

  5. Another thank you from me too. I completely agree that the rest of us need to start speaking out now. The thing is, in London at least, we have a massively organised taxi lobby, for example. And we have pretty much nothing for those of us on bicycles other than the LCC who seem well past their sell by date in many respects.

    This article tells me everything about why we need to do this. Have a read of this:

    My uncle visited last week from Switzerland. He couldn't believe that my five year old niece gets driven to school. His kids cycled to school on their own at that age. And kids of that ages still do now. Just not in the UK. Because we've filled our towns, cities, villages, country roads with extremelyfast cars and no options for anyone to do anything else.

    I think it's time to change. And so do so many others. Even many of the 'motorists' think it's getting a bit silly now.

  6. Thanks for your comment Danny. I also think it's high time to give people an alternative when it comes both to transport mode and the campaign to support. ATM all the campaigns are about the same and can't admit that they failed.
    I have too been amazed at the stories I heard from my colleague from Switzerland - which debunks another myth saying that UK is too hilly for mass cycling. While I am a foreigner I want to see the quality of life in London change - for my kids.

  7. Well said, this is something which needs to be done. I think we have reached a critical mass with respect to the numerous major disadvantages which come from almost everyone using a car for almost every journey.

    Hopefully we can make the infrastructure come, and the focus shift away from cycling as a sport and back to everyday transport for everyday people.

  8. Mr Colostomy thanks for your comment. And thank you for your post about choosing the right bicycle - I do hope it will make riding bicycle a more pleasant and practical experience for new riders who read this.

  9. Your chart showing 'Four types of transportation cyclist in Portland' really struck a chord with me. I used to work in retail management and there was a saying that 5% of your customers would buy something no matter what you did or said. Another 5% would buy nothing, no matter what you did or said. The other 90% were up to you and your selling skills. It seems we might benefit from some lessons in retail to sell the idea of cycling as simple transport!

    Your quote: "However I do hope that they change the mindset of some of the people who already cycle" exactly describes me. I was the archetypal vehicular cyclist until I had children. Now I'm convinced that the status quo is wrong. We need a new voice and I hope the Cycle Embassy of GB will be it. I'm already trying to think of ways that I might be able to help.

    I don't live in London, but this blog and others like it (crapwalthamforest, ibikelondon, At War With The Motorist, Lo Fidelity, Cycalogical etc etc!) have now become essential daily reading for me. Keep it up guys. You are an inspiration for at least one ordinary cycling bloke out there!

    Thank you,

  10. Lovely words, don_don, it's really nice to hear feedback about our work sometimes!

    I like your retail analogy, indeed it in turn reminded me of this article which I read recently about how we need to accentuate the positives in order to 'sell' cycling as a mass means of transportation:

  11. @don_don - thanks for your comment. It's definitely spot on with the retail analogy - for ages riding a bike has been "sold" to a niche group of people. You can even see this in bicycle shops, who cater for a particular age and gender. However you have to look no further then the car industry to learn how to sell your product to the world. However while the car industry is generally selling an illusion the bicycle lobby are selling the facts.
    It really means a lot for us bloggers to find out that our rants actually are of interest to people. Thank you for these kind words.

  12. I'm not a cyclist, and I would like to be. So I'm becoming a cycling activist out of desperation. I want it to be like when I was at college, and EVRYONE owned a bike and cycled everywhere.

    I too hope the Cycle Embassy will be a new voice for people like me, but I am also considering joining an existing group like LCC - they already have a bit of a platform, they are who my local council consults with over street changes, for instance. I think wannabe cyclists need to be represented everywhere it might matter, if we are going to get any change of approach.

    Now, off to write to my MP ref the LIP...

  13. @Emily - I too hope you and others like you will be able to enjoy high quality bicycle tracks thanks to CEoGB. I am really glad that a person like you stopped by and let me know what you think. I hope there are more people like to who are willing to ask for what they want and not put up with the status quo any more!

  14. I read the two links in the comments here with real interest. Perhaps there is some hope that London might start to follow the examples of New York and Washington DC and then people will start to see the benefits, both in lifestyle and financial terms. The relatively tiny cost of NY's cycling initiatives is telling. By comparison, I recall a quote somewhere in Freewheeler's blog (I think) about the insane cost of a single metre of motorway.

    I hope that the messages will eventually start sinking in that this is not about 'Cycling' per se, but rather it is about our whole transport/planning policy and 'motor-centric' way of life. I don't want my children to inherit the mess we live with now and I'd like to feel safe riding about town in my old age!

    I'm learning a lot from you guys. In fact I'm quite keen to travel over for the inaugural Cycling Embassy of GB meeting on the 29th. Thanks again,

  15. p.s. - go for it Emily!


  16. Please don't be another blogger who vilifies those who choose (and like) to ride sporty bikes. We should share our communal cycling love with ALL bike users (being careful not to use cyclists), lycra clad racing bike user or sit up and beg jeans clad bike user.

    We all love the pleasure of cycling and we should be pleased to see any one on a bike no matter what their choice.

    One pleasure, one voice. No point dividing a minoritiy group into even smaller minorities.

  17. GL - thanks for dropping by. It's a very valid point. While I agree that everyone is enjoying cycling their way I have a feeling that certain cyclists do not wish to share it with anyone except themselves and ones like them. How would you define cyclist who call slower, less experienced ones "nodders" and say they do not want safe cycling tracks because they would have to be stuck behind them. I have come across many people like that and think they do more harm then good to mass cycling. Plus this kind of cycling is not luring people in - people don't drive NASCAR cars to work because they are unpractical and require them to wear special clothes. Which is why while I don't care what people ride as long as it's a bike (trike etc) I do not want to promote sporty cycling. I also think it's wrong for people who only like sport cycling to be the "cyclists' voice" for everyone else. Sporty cycling is a subculture and I personally want the bicycle to go mainstream.

  18. ndru, thanks for the reply.

    I disagree with you not wishing to promote 'sporty' cycling. All cycling should be promoted. You never know, someone may take up cycling as a sport and decide to go into other forms. Or that person on that road bike may have a utility bike at home.

    Therefore I also agree that 'sporty' cyclists should not look down on others. We should ALL learn to get on. If we can't accept each other why do we expect others road users accept us.

    I repeat, we will not get anywhere feuding amongst us or trying to marginalise a useful voice. You may not like it, but let's face it, the success of our 'sports' cyclists (Mark Cavendish, Chris Hoy) have probably brought more people to cycling than all of the utility cyclists in the UK. You may say "aah, but they will take up sporty cycling". You may be right, but personally I don't think so. They are more likely to start cycling to work and go from there. Once they have caught the bug, they've caught the bug and who knows where that will lead.

    If your child said "dad, I want to take up road cycling" would you say "no. It's has no purpose and doesn't further the cause"?

  19. Oh I am definitely not going to stop anyone from cycling (whatever type). I just think that, as you say, sporty cycling has enough influence already, which also means that cycling is generally perceived as a sport. This isn't all bad of course, but I feel that putting emphasis on the utilitarian aspect of cycling is the key to mass cycling. This is of course not to say that the "workout" aspect of cycling is to be neglected - far from it.
    Just to make it clear there is no holier-than-thou thinking in this - it's a simple statement of the fact that sporty cycling is niche. Thus it gives little room for leverage of the lobbying.

  20. I don't have anything against sport cycling, and I'd wager that almost no-one else who rides a utilitarian transport bike does either. It is ultimately self-defeating to promote cycling solely as sport though; whilst many people will have become cyclists because of the appeal of cycling as a sport, many more will be put off because they just want to get around. Just take a look at those guides for new cyclists where they are encouraged to get a sports bike for utilitarian use, all the gear and the hassle are off-putting to many.

    Consider motorsport, I doubt many people were encouraged to start driving because of Lewis Hamilton or Jenson Button. If cars were only widely promoted as sporting goods, I doubt they would have sadly become the dominant form of transport in this country.

    Sport cycling is a specialist interest which is doing well and I am glad for that. It will never appeal to the majority of the population though, at least not as a means of getting from A to B. It is in everyone's best interest to promote the right bikes and the right infrastructure which will be of benefit to the largest number of people. This will be good for sport too, as more people discover dependable & convenient utility cycling a subset will become interested in the sport; remember sport cycling participation was much higher in the UK back in the times of mass utility cycling.

    Promote cycling as transport; it is good for everyone, even the sporty ones.

  21. Mr Colostomy

    And vice versa. Promote sport cycling; it's good for everyone, even the utilitarian ones. Im my opinion anyway.

    I don't like the comparison between cars and bikes that is so often peddled (excuse the pun), as it does not really work. Cars are different to bikes and needed for different things. I, as much as the next person, want to see less journeys made by car. The benefit to the individual, society and the world would be huge if less journeys were made by car. But the fact is, when a family wants to travel from London to Liverpool (for example) the bike is not a viable alternative.

    It is a bit like comparing walking with cycling. Walking is good. But if you had to walk 8 miles each way each day you would start to look for a quicker way, maybe cycling? Cycling is good. But if you had to cycle 40 miles each way each day you would start to look for a quicker way, maybe a car or a train?

    Each mode has it's positives and negatives.

    Cars need to accept bikes and bikes need to accept cars. It's as simple as that really. We need to learn to get on.

  22. @GL
    I don't think any of us suggests that you need to use a bicycle to travel from London to Manchester. You use a train for that of course. Jokes aside the issue is promoting and establishing cycling where it is the best, most sustainable and pleasant for all mode of transport - the urban areas.
    Cars do accept bikes and bikes accept cars. The thing is people on bikes are afraid of their lives when cycling between cars and don't want to ride for this reason. There is ample proof for what does and doesn't make people cycle and if we want any of that in UK we simply need to follow this example.

  23. @GL

    The comparison between cars and bikes does work when you consider that the vast majority of car journeys are single occupant trips of less than 5 miles (a huge number of these are less than 2). On this scale bikes and cars are easily comparable, and the benefits of promoting cycling as transport become obvious. Sure you wouldn't cycle hundreds of miles in one trip, but the average car user doesn't travel that far very often.

    Promoting sport cycling is fine, but if you look at almost every shop selling bikes in the UK, they are selling an image of bikes solely as sporting goods. Some people are interested in that, which is great. A vastly larger number more than this have a simple need to get from A to B, but the bike doesn't seem viable as an option because the bikes are sold as sporting goods; you are encouraged to buy a bike which is impractical for everyday transport and fit yourself around these shortcomings of you want to use it as a practical form of transport. Obviously the main barrier to mass cycling is perceived safety, to fix that we need dedicated Dutch-style infrastructure, but I think that the image of cycling solely as a sporting/leisure activity is another factor holding back the return of mass cycling in the UK.

    Before mass car ownership, the bicycle was seen as a tool for transportation here in the UK. We once had a modal share for bicycles which would put the Netherlands to shame. What followed was the marketing of cycling as sport by the bike companies, in a desperate bid to keep selling bikes. This worked in a way; almost every adult owns a bike, but sadly very few actually use them.

  24. @Mr Colostomy I disagree that most cycling shops promote an image of bikes as sporting only. When I go into my local bike shop as well as a variety of road bikes I also see hybrids, trikes, tourers and single speeds.

    The problem is that a lot of trendy utilitarian bikes are expensive and dare I say 'niche'. By utilitarian I mean a bike that can carry loads as well as people. I imagine this cost will put a lot of people off.

    The crux of the matter is that if decent infrastructure is built then people will come and will use it. Families, children and even god forbid roadies in their 'lycra' too(or maybe they should be banned from this utopian cycling vision?).

    I think fixating of getting the majority of non-cyclists to purchase a £1500 cargo bike is not the way to go.

    The way to go is to campaign for better infrastructure and to win the hearts and minds of non-cyclists. The infrastructure will come when cycling becomes a political hot potato. This is what happened in The Netherlands. The decision by the government to reduce car ownership only happened after a campaign started to stop child roads deaths.

  25. @Anon "I think fixating of getting the majority of non-cyclists to purchase a £1500 cargo bike is not the way to go." Nobody says you have to do that. I, personally, am only trying to convince people to buy useful bikes. Oh and the funny thing is some don't mind splashing £2000 on a carbon racing bike to use for commuting.
    It's great that you also see the need of separate cycling infrastructure. The thing is to acquire this critical mass we need some infrastructure to begin with. Then it's going to grow exponentially.

  26. Oh and another reason for not promoting sporty cycling is for instance the latest comment of Pickles: "We can't be all riding in rubber knicker". Of course it's a stereotype and a sign of f*ckwittery, but it's one that has to be challenged.

  27. For all the claims to the contrary, it's my view that many sports cyclists don't even view cycling as truly normal themselves. They believe that they need fancy expensive gear, that every ride is a competition, and judge each other by their bike/gear. They are the cycling equivalents of boy racers.

    When people like that are campaigning for everyday people on bikes then we have a problem, because they often just "don't get it". It's all a hindrance to a real "cycling culture" in my opinion.

  28. @Anon

    I think focussing on getting people to spend £1500 on cargo bikes is not the way to go too. I do think that encouraging the majority of people to spend a few hundred on a roadster or similar, with a rack, mudguards, chain-case/guard, lights and an upright riding position would be a good thing for mass cycling. It is an antidote to the years of fetishising which cycling has suffered in the UK. As others have said though, the infrastructure needs to come first

  29. Hello there, I am so excited I found your site, I really found you by error, while I was researching on google for something else, Anyhow I am here now and would just like to say kudos for a fantastic post and a all round thrilling blog (I also love the theme/design), I don’t have time to go through it all at the moment but I have saved it and also included your RSS feeds.

  30. Hi Elena, I'm glad you found my blog interesting. I haven't blogged anything for a long time since there are many other bloggers in London and rest of UK who write clty what I would but do it more eloquently and in a more informed manner. There is however this one post that I will write which is a comparison between a Workcycles bike (Dutch) and a Pashley bike (English) after over two years of use and abuse.