For six years, between 2005 and 2011, I lived in a Cycling Demonstration Town. Supported by central government, my hometown was one of an initial six that received increased funding for cycling, to get – to follow Cycling England’s mantra – ‘more people cycling, more safely, more often’.
Locally, the project described itself as ‘Celebrating Cycling’. It centred on infrastructural improvements, but also included a wide range of promotional activities, such as maps and brochures, events, led rides, maintenance classes and cycle training.
In an Autumn 2006 publication delivered to all households in the district, the City Council said:
Not only do we want to increase cycling in our district but more than that we want to create a real culture change that will not only see cycling become a mainstream and popular way for people to travel locally but that will also see the community understand, positively embrace and celebrate cycling’s vital role in the sustainable future of our district.
(Lancaster City Council, 2006: 11)
Based on various surveys, official pronouncements, anecdotal evidence and ethnographic observations, it’s clear the project produced some gains – a raised profile for cycling locally, improvements to cycling infrastructure on the ground, and increased levels of cycling activity.
So albeit slowly and not on a scale likely to achieve mass cycling anytime soon, change was happening. Building a bicycle system takes time and the project rightly had a long-term focus. In 2009 the Department for Transport published a report containing preliminary findings from the first six demonstration towns. It concluded that:
a sustained and well-designed programme of investment in cycling at about the level of £10 per head of population was sufficient, in every one of the Cycling Demonstration Towns, to achieve an increase in cycling.
It is worth emphasising that this is in some ways a surprising conclusion. It is commonly supposed that past failure to increase cycling levels is proof that it is not possible to increase cycling in Britain. In fact, the Cycling Demonstration Towns have demonstrated, in every case, that it is possible to increase cycling, even in towns which almost completely lack a ‘cycling culture’.
(Sloman et al, 2009: 26)
This report recognised much more still had to be done, but finished on the upbeat note “that the six towns have achieved ‘lift-off’ for cycling” (Sloman et al, 2009: 26).
So change was underway but this was seen as only the start of a longer-term process. The Cycling Demonstration Town project aimed to explore the impact of sustained investment in cycling. Another Department for Transport report noted how the level of funding for cycling in the first six Demonstration Towns was
comparable with the annual investment in cycling in towns that have successfully increased cycling in mainland Europe, which over about 20 years of investment have achieved continued growth in urban cycling.
(Department for Transport, undated but 2010: 17, my emphasis in bold)
It’s now 2013 and I don’t live in a Cycling Demonstration Town any more. I haven’t moved, but institutional commitment to cycling has. The Cycling Demonstration Towns project was abandoned when Cycling England was dismantled in 2011, and Lancaster City Council’s commitment to cycling has been declining ever since.
At the start of the project, when ambitions were at their highest, signs were erected at each of the District’s road boundaries:
These signs welcomed people with the programme’s logo and the words ‘celebrating cycling in our city, coast and countryside’. They acted as a permanent advert for Lancaster’s commitment to cycling.
(Department for Transport, undated but 2010: 60; my emphasis in bold)
Those signs have gone, and the official endorsement of cycling which they seemed unambiguously to announce has left barely a trace. (In an hour’s trawling of the Internet, the image above is the only one showing the ‘Celebrating cycling’ road signs I could find). The fact we ever were a Cycling Demonstration Town is being erased.
Why? Are we embarrassed that we might once have celebrated cycling, and imagined things could be different? Or was cycling’s celebration only a momentary blip for so long as the money lasted, and we’re now back to business- (and motoring-) as-usual?
And who is responsible for this local institutional erasure of cycling? Central government pulled the plug prematurely on what always needed to be a long-term process. Local government was unable to develop and institute effective strategies to support cycling once centralised funding ended. Also, what seems an obvious prerequisite for long-term success, the development of broad and deep civil society support for cycling through building links at a grassroots level, was never an important objective of the Cycling Demonstration Towns project.
It’s not just that the project has ended; some of its minor gains are now being eroded. One casualty is cycling children. Through cycle training, improved facilities (especially bike parking, which had been ripped out of many British schools as it became seen as irresponsible to cater for, let alone encourage, something so ‘dangerous’ as cycling), and promotional activities, the Cycling Demonstration Towns won quick increases in schoolchildren’s cycling. But without continuous encouragement, cycling to school along roads hostile to cycling is impossible to sustain.
It is ironic that the ‘Celebrating Cycling’ signs welcoming people (people driving, mainly) to the district were on roads, because it is those roads where the project spectacularly failed to change conditions in cycling’s favour, and those unchanged roads are the reason why the small gains made for cycling during the project’s lifetime are now so easily being lost. The car’s centrality to the local transport system was never even questioned, let alone challenged. Even in a Cycling Demonstration Town cycling had to fit in with, never displace, the car.
Still, the signs that demonstrated a brief and fragile institutional commitment may have gone, but cycling of course remains. It’s two years since we stopped ‘celebrating cycling’, but the last week has been dry, warm and sunny – perfect cycling weather – and people are out and about on bikes, though fewer than you might imagine given how recently the push for cycling has ended.
Of course many of the people cycling have been here all along; people like us. Unlike our governing institutions we do not forget cycling, and alongside our enjoyment of it, at least part of our collective grassroots task remains, to help others remember it again.
Department for Transport (undated but 2010): Making a Cycling Town: a compilation of practitioners’ experiences from the Cycling Demonstration Towns programme, Qualitative Survey, 2005-2009.
Lancaster City Council (2006): Your District Council Matters, Issue 9, Summer/Autumn, 8 page pull-out guide – ‘Celebrating Cycling in City, Coast and Countryside’.
Sloman L, Cavill N, Cope A, Muller L & Kennedy A (2009): Analysis and synthesis of evidence on the effects of investment in six Cycling Demonstration Towns, Report for Department for Transport & Cycling England.