Cycling advocacy and the global future

earth day bicycleThere is no global cycling policy and globally cycling’s future will emerge from multiple and intersecting trends, including: responses to big planetary challenges such as climate change, the end of cheap oil, and the growth in diseases induced by sedentary lifestyles; patterns of car ownership and use, especially across the world’s fastest-growing economies; changes in cycling’s profile, particularly in globally iconic cities; and the possibilities of new technologies (including e-bikes and public bike schemes) to re-define current meanings and practices of mobility. But cycling’s future and so also the globe’s will be importantly shaped by its advocates’ views of what cycling is for.

Why advocate cycling? Simply so it becomes easier for us as cyclists to move about by bike? Or is there a bigger vision of what everyone’s lives, relationships, places, and world should be and feel like? I think the latter – the bicycle is both symbolic of, and a pragmatic path to, another way of life, and this is why so many of us believe in cycling, and want to make it bigger.

The bicycle isn’t yet the iconic vehicle to and of a brighter world, but it could and should be – there’s an empty space in the global imagination awaiting it to fill. Though the idea of the bicycle achieving globally iconic status might seem ridiculous, a hundred years ago the same might have been said about the car, and the bicycle’s deeply loved by people everywhere.

If we want a different world organised around the bicycle not the car, it’s our business to make it. Cycling’s global future depends partly on how successfully its advocates build and sell cycling as core to a better world; and for that we need bold and powerful visions. Yet in Britain at least, no cycling advocacy organisation obviously and proudly struts an alternative global vision (the small, grassroots, activist-initiated Bicycology perhaps comes closest). CTC – the national cycling charity – endured the time of the car, and has (understandably) found ways of co-existing with it, though its recent ‘Cycletopia’ initiative seemed a tentative step in a more visionary direction. Sustrans gives tantalising glimpses of cycling as a route to a better world in its publicity material, but doesn’t really deliver more. A new organisation, the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain is less constrained, more impatient and ambitious, but has yet to develop a really compelling and inspiring vision of why transport cycling is worth fighting for. And although it’s become more common, even acceptable, to aim not for 2 but 25% of journeys by bike, it’s still unclear why.

This absence of big and persuasive stories about why we want more cycling is a problem for two reasons.

First, it means the value of cycling gets colonised by institutional agendas and ambitions. Institutions embracing cycling is no bad thing, but is it generating a bland, pragmatic and in the long-run counter-productive view of cycling? Is the dominant trope becoming of cycling fitting this world, rather than creating a route out, towards a better one? In projecting the idea that cycling belongs to the same world as today’s driving one, institutionalised cycling promotion prevents our getting somewhere else, cycling’s potential sold short and stymied.

Second, it’s hard to motivate and inspire without a vision. As advocates we should help people cycling feel part of something big and transformative – a movement changing the world for good. Then they won’t be ‘merely’ cycling; they’ll be on a mission, and might get more involved. But the absence of global and national visions for cycling is felt locally – cycle campaigns everywhere struggle against a tide of indifference when they could and should be trail-blazing vibrant, radical and inspiring visions for their districts.

At this local level, in Britain and elsewhere two styles of cycling advocacy tend to co-exist, often uneasily. In one, advocates view themselves as ‘cycling’s representatives’ and make suggestions for things that ought to be done (usually by others, mainly local government) for cycling, and complain about schemes (so many!) that fail to value cycling. Here, cycling is done to us, by those we lobby and to whom we protest; however much we love cycling, it becomes something given us by others. With respect to everyone who engages in such work (and I’ve done my share), such advocacy gets cycling a few crumbs from transport’s table and achieves little beyond reproducing itself as marginal; it’s jaded, lacks vision and disempowers both ourselves and others. The other style of cycling advocacy is more obviously vision-led. Cycling is not done to us, we do cycling. Although it rarely finds its way into mainstream cycle campaigning this style of advocacy can be found in grassroots projects, often workers’ co-ops, across the world; and it’s one to learn, adopt and adapt more widely.

critical massHow? I’m not sure; the necessary work is neither obvious nor easy. But articulation of a global vision could start in our own backyards and involve two main tasks: the priority is to develop and strive to popularisea local visionbased around the bicycle – we need to open to and convince not just othersbut also ourselvesof a future where cycling is the practical, ethical and aesthetic glue joining things together; this could entail shifts to advocacy in artistic, literary and educational directions, to produce locally-pertinent and collectively-owned stories about cycling’s relevance to a fair and sustainable global future; the next step is to direct energies into projects making these locally-owned visions real. Like everything, the way to proceed is through practice, and to try to have fun! (Advocacy can be dreary, but it could be exciting, and so much more effective.)

It’s time to reclaim cycling for a cause more noble than getting people to work on time, time for visions inspiring more people to ‘really get cycling’ (by which I mean not just doing cycling, but having reasons why, reasons dictated not by government policy priorities but real thirst for change). Cycling advocacy influences cycling’s future, and so too the globe’s, so we must be bold and visionary. Dream and demand too little and we’ll get less than cycling deserves – how depressing if more cycling doesn’t, when it so obviously could, change the world? So let’s work for a ‘cycling revolution’ which is no chimera, but real.

This post is based on a talk I gave on 23rd October 2013, at the AGM of Dynamo, Lancaster and District’s Cycling Campaign. Thanks to Dynamo for having me speak, and to those who attended for stimulating discussion. The art work is by Mona Caron – whilst I’m sure not alone, she’s the only artist I know of who has done work that embodies a clear vision of cycling-based futures.