Posts Tagged ‘Get Britain Cycling’

Wide Open Road

October 4, 2013

There are parts of England, never mind Britain, where it’s possible to do a long day’s ride almost entirely on A and B roads (for those who live elsewhere, that’s big roads) yet rarely see a truck or car (though tractors, quad bikes and post vans are a bit more common).

Along the Ingleton to Hawes road

I’d been invited to the Department for Transport’s Cycle Stakeholder Forum which took place on Monday in London. Although on paper I’m a ‘member’ of this Forum, I’ve yet to attend a meeting. Frankly, the continuing ‘taking cycling seriously’ waffle, whilst so little’s being done to make cycling easy, makes me nauseous, and whilst I know it’s not a particularly rational political strategy (and even ‘immature’), I increasingly want nothing to do with it. To be honest I’m still not sure whether ‘men (and it is mainly men) in suits (pretending to) take cycling seriously’ is a good thing: it’s probably an inevitable and necessary stage in the process of making cycling mainstream, something I’ve long hoped to see; but – and this is where the nausea comes in – I hate seeing cycling instrumentalised, reduced and bureaucratised, all so it makes sense within worlds which – at least for me – are antithetical to what cycling is and should be.

So rather than go to London I promised myself a long ride instead. Then I’d save the £90 train fare, and likely spend and end the day energised and elated, rather than dejected and deflated. Some days all I want to do, really, is sit on the bike and ride; spend the day thoughtlessly pedalling. On those days I tend to devise a relatively flat route along relatively big roads (and I almost always ride anti-clockwise, a habit I developed long ago – I think through riding with people who saw right turns as making rides unnecessarily complicated).

A684, west of Hawes

With so much talk of ‘Getting Britain Cycling’, it’s odd that I can leave home at 9 am on a Monday morning, ride 85 miles along big roads remarkably free of motorised traffic and passing through some of England’s finest countryside, yet barely see another person on a bicycle. We might be getting more serious about more effectively inserting cycling into the ‘straight’ world, but what I’d like to see is the ‘straight’ world get a bit less, well, ‘straight’ through its embrace of cycling, so that the Monday-Friday, 9-5 grind starts to lose its allure. ‘Yes’, cycling could make us ‘more efficient workers’ (one of the few reasons many politicians could probably be persuaded to like it), but really, who wants to be a more efficient worker?! Instead, sell the car, get a bike, and use the money saved to drop hours spent working and go cycling instead! That way lies more health benefits than ‘merely’ pedalling the commute could ever bring; and a tangible sense of freedom to boot.

Rides such as this one, involving big loops north-east of Lancaster, don’t feel they’ve quite started until I reach Ingleton, 18 miles from home. I think that’s because only then do I reach roads that are wide, open and quiet; until then bigger roads are busy, while quieter ones are lanes that tend to feel intimate, not expansive. I love riding through the gentle mid-morning ‘bustle’ of Ingleton village (I often pop my first banana or energy bar on my way through), because then the ‘niggly bit’ is over and the long, straight roads of the western Dales begin. The B6255 road to Hawes climbs steeply at first before flattening as it strikes a course north-east, Whernside to one side, Ingleborough the other. Riding this road I always feel a deep privilege to being on a bike.

The valley narrows towards Chapel-le-Dale and the exposed limestone creeps closer, then Ribblehead Viaduct strikes its clear, fine line across the moor ahead. You swoop fast down beneath it and then, immediately after the Horton turn which follows the Settle-Carlisle south, there’s a lovely curve to the road which lets you keep your speed ahead of the next rise, as you pass the motorists huddled in their cars.

From the pass at Newby Head it’s downhill almost all the way to Hawes. The road is wide and its gradient gradual, so you can hold a good speed, with on Monday a strong head wind saving me the effort of braking.

From Hawes the wind is mostly at my back, and I plain sail west up valley to the Moorcock Inn, just shy of the Wensleydale/Garsdale watershed, turning north there down a valley for which, if I’ve not ridden it in more than a month or two, I develop serious cravings – Mallerstang.

B6259, north of Moorcock Inn

Why do I love Mallerstang? The gradients are gentle (you can see why the Settle-Carlisle railway took this valley), and – in this direction – after a short climb you’ve a long downhill that’s fast and fluid. The surrounding fells (Wild Boar is perhaps best known) are little visited, while their long edges and gentle slopes form a perfect fit with road cycling. And though you’re moving fast across smooth tarmac, you feel here that you’ve left the world behind.

I usually stay along this Eden Valley into Kirkby Stephen because, 50 miles from home, I need food; but today – progress slowed by the wind – I’ve already eaten in Hawes. So at Pendragon Castle a few miles short of Kirkby I take the little lane west (the railway tunnelled below) to the next empty A road, the 683. A super road, going south it aims straight at the Howgills before hugging tight their eastern flank. (You re-enter the Yorkshire Dales National Park where Cautley Spout tumbles from the fells behind The Cross Keys Temperance Inn.) Like Mallerstang, heading this way the gradient’s in your favour and it’s another straight, fast run all the way to Sedbergh. Through the town I keep to the A683 along the Lune’s east side to Kirkby Lonsdale, switching there via Devil’s Bridge to the Lune’s west side for the last stretch, along the B6254, for home.

A683, south of Kirkby Stephen

Cycling wide open roads lifts not just my spirits but also my horizons. It makes me ambitious for cycling in ways not encouraged by the Department for Transport, ambitious not just quantitatively but also qualitatively. ‘Yes’ to more bums on saddles, but I want cycling to lead those bums – both individually and collectively – towards better things. Why ‘Get Britain Cycling’? To get its bodies and its cities primed for the next wave of neo-liberal, corporate, consumer capitalist incursions, aimed at making Britain more economically ‘efficient’ and profitable? Not in my name, thanks. I want Britain to ‘Get Cycling’ so more people might ride their bike to ride their bike and take ‘a cycling perspective’, one that gets them closer to home, closer to themselves, closer to a world in which no one need wear a suit.

Get Britain Cycling?

May 8, 2013

Get Britain Cycling

The sun’s out, the temperature’s rising. Spring seemed to take forever to arrive but suddenly now it’s here; everything’s going green, and yellow, and blue – colour everywhere! At this time of year riding should really take precedence. But – even if I sometimes forget precisely why – it continues to be important to encourage others to cycle.

And hey … there’s a petition to sign! Should we have to petition Government to take cycling seriously? It’s easy to be cynical. We’re petitioning for a Parliamentary debate on cycling – for politicians to discuss the just-published Get Britain Cycling report. We’re asking British politicians to start talking seriously about cycling. We can laugh, scorn or mock, but this is the situation we’re in, and pushing for a Parliamentary debate on cycling is our best hope of building top-down support for cycling.

For the report and recommendations from the Get Britain Cycling Inquiry to get debated in Parliament, the petition needs 100,000 signatures. 54,084 people have signed so far; with I think the petition in danger of demonstrating what we already know – cycling, particularly belief in cycling as a major means of urban transport, is marginal (which is precisely why we need enlightened governance and political leadership). So please, sign the petition, and ask others to do so too.

But realise that cycling isn’t in the news because of Government action; it’s in the news because of Government inaction. So more important than signing this petition is maintaining the broader, grassroots agitation for change which has led to it, and which is also applying political pressure in other ways.

Even if we do get the Parliamentary debate, I’m afraid we must expect it – and any Governmental response – to be inadequate. It’d be naïve to expect a Parliamentary debate on cycling to make serious cracks in the dominant car system, though it’s cracks we need; more likely is continuing tokenistic support for cycling of the kind which keeps car use-as-ordinary undisturbed. Cycling politics is resurgent partly because it was repressed during a period of grossly ineffective cycling policy. (We might date this from the 1996 launch of the National Cycling Strategy (which aimed to increase cycling 400% by 2012) until the demise of Cycling England fifteen years later, in 2011.) During that period it felt like ‘things were being done for cycling’, though we know now they weren’t, really. Cycling levels didn’t quadruple; they stayed the same, whilst car use for even the shortest journeys became more widespread, habitual and acceptable.

Freed from constraints imposed by the hegemony of ‘realistic cycling policy’, in the last couple of years many of us have felt liberated to think cycling differently; we’ve stepped up our ambitions for cycling, and have started to talk about cycling as capable of challenging the car’s obese sense of entitlement to especially urban space. We don’t necessarily know anything new. It’s more that we’ve found our voice, one repressed whilst dominant players within the cycling promotion industry enjoyed a cosy if ineffective relationship to Power. We’re learning to contest established cycling promotion orthodoxies, to be bold and audacious. About time really! After all, we’re only saying what everybody else – ‘ordinary people’ who’d quite like to cycle – already knows! But until now it’s been remarkably difficult to say simple, obvious things.

We must be sure to hold tightly onto our new, bigger, bolder, better ambitions for cycling when responding to emerging Government rhetoric, policy and action. Because we don’t want a bit more cycling, we want mass cycling; and because some established players – cycling’s traditional representatives – will likely be too easily satisfied.

In the meantime we must keep pushing from the bottom-up. Of course we must seek greater representation of cycling within ‘anti-cycling’ systems; but if we also cycle more, encourage others to cycle more, and support small, local projects aimed at getting still others to cycle more, then we simultaneously build the grassroots base which cycling needs in order to be politically more powerful and resilient.

Irrespective of whether or not it triggers a Parliamentary debate on the Get Britain Cycling Inquiry’s report, this petition will indicate to politicians how much support there is for cycling. Less than 100,000 signatures demonstrates we’re still small – still a movement pushing at the outside rather than a voice to incorporate on the inside; still marginal, not mainstream.

Part of me tires of trying to get other people to take cycling seriously. Part of me thinks ‘sod it! Just enjoy your own cycling’. But then I remember the reasons cycling matters – its important contributions to local and global social and environmental dignity. Still, it’s hard to keep pushing cycling when people don’t want to listen, and when even those who do so often respond inadequately.

But then, things do change; and we need to create opportunities to help make them change. So we must be sceptical optimists. We must keep hope that things can change dramatically in cycling’s favour. The ambitions of government towards cycling must surely rise sometime; just maybe, this could be the time!

100,000 signatures would give hope that Government might hear our audacious ambitions for cycling, ambitions which would genuinely start to crack the grossly dominant current car system. So please, if you think that’s important, sign the petition here. But know too that whatever Government does, it won’t be enough – we must become used to advocating cycling for a long time yet.

In the meantime, every body matters, so cycling and encouraging others to cycle remains the really important political work. Get out there and enjoy riding through Spring! It’s brilliant!

Bicycle Bridge

February 12, 2013

Millennium Bridge

The struggle to make this thing happen, the fights fought, the controversies generated, are gone. In their place, testament to powerful visions and hard work, is a beautiful bridge, almost completely taken-for-granted by those who use it, its beauty unappreciated for the best reason – eclipsed by its practical value. It has radically improved the quality of many people’s journeys; and it has imperceptibly but surely created many more, including those of my family and me.

Sue crossing the Millennium Bridge

It’s called the Millennium Bridge, although it didn’t open for use until February 2001.

The Millennium Bridge

How did it happen? Who was responsible? Perhaps in its early days those whose lives were changed by it asked such questions, but no more; our local cycling and walking bridge has slipped gracefully into the landscape, becoming part of our ordinary travelling environment, forming the backdrop to our lives. But that doesn’t make it any less revolutionary.

Millennium Bridge Signpost

Twelve years since its opening I can scarcely imagine the difficulties once involved in crossing the Lune by bike. If you were strong and fearless you could carry your bike up and down concrete staircases and along the quiet, high, hemmed-in corridor running beside the west coast mainline.

Railway bridge

Or else you could use one of two road bridges: both carry large volumes of motorised traffic including many HGVs and buses; both are multi-lane and one-way. Going against the flow forced you onto the pavement with equally beleaguered pedestrians. Even travelling in the same direction as the motorised traffic most cyclists would retreat to the pavement (and you can see from the photo below, still do). A few rode on the road; at rush hour this involved making your way through fuming drivers stuck in slow-moving nose-to-tail traffic, at other times it entailed trying to hold a pace and space sufficient to prevent getting swallowed and squeezed.

Road bridge (northbound)

Pavement cycling

That’s like a bad dream now. We often cycle across the Lune; a couple of days ago the four of us rode to Salt Ayre Sports Centre for table tennis, and yesterday Bobby, Sue and I went across to do some training around the cycle track. Such trips are easy, obvious, convenient. We don’t even think about how hard they would once have been. But when Sue and I first moved to Lancaster seventeen years ago cycling across the river was awkward and difficult even as committed, experienced cyclists without children.

A new normal has been created for us here. We need to create a new normal for everyone everywhere.

Bike on the bridge

Cyclist on the bridge

Riding across the bridge

Last week I gave evidence to the Parliamentary Inquiry into how we get Britain cycling. This process must lead to strengthened political commitment for cycling. The need for such commitment is obvious but not inevitable – we must keep pushing to make it happen. Getting Britain cycling requires bold vision and lots of money (not new money, merely money taken from elsewhere). We need to make cycling normal, and making cycling normal requires the sort of change the Millennium Bridge brought to some people’s patterns of mobility everywhere, for everyone.

Parliament

It’s crude but also obvious: let’s say 2% of transport spending for cycling will keep cycling at 2% of all journeys. Is that what we want? Are we satisfied with continuing to reproduce cycling as a marginal mode of mobility – something few will do and most won’t contemplate? The Inquiry’s title, ‘Getting Britain Cycling’ sounds more ambitious than that to me; so how about, for starters, talking about 20% of all journeys by bike, and us as cycling’s advocates learning to demand 20% of total transport spending to match?

Would we cycle across the River Lune were our bridge not there? As a family I doubt it. Riding together requires the sort of conditions which remain almost completely absent here, as elsewhere in urban Britain. The need to re-design our cities for group cycling was part of the written evidence I submitted to Wednesday’s Inquiry, and which Peter Walker published in that day’s Guardian. But it’s a sign of how far we’ve still to go that demanding facilities conducive to group cycling is probably seen by some as unreasonable or greedy; this despite our cities suffering so much under the volume and speed of so many cars, most of which have enough seats to embed car-based sociality as a principle and a right (even if most of those seats are usually empty). We’ll have made solid progress towards cycle-friendly cities when the idea that a group of four people should be able to cycle comfortably together is seen as more legitimate than the idea of those people travelling together by car.

Dusk falls over the bridge

The Millennium Bridge gives a tantalising glimpse of this cycle-friendly future; indeed it enables a family riding together to embody, perform and so start to reproduce it. But as we found time and again on the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, because they inhabit a car-centric world most people (often far from voluntarily) continue to embody, perform and reproduce a car-centric perspective; this despite the benefits of cycling being increasingly recognised by both themselves and the politicians and policy-makers seeking to govern them.

This is what we want

Our bicycle bridge offers a vantage point onto a fresh perspective. It helps us appreciate how atrocious and intolerable were conditions for cycling. How did we put up with them for so long? Why did we put up with them for so long?

Those dreadful conditions have just here become redundant, but they persist and prevail elsewhere.

To talk of ‘getting Britain cycling’ against such a backdrop is simply deluded. Looking back on the River Lune, it’s obvious that what’s happened here must happen everywhere. We need the equivalent of our bicycle bridge for everyone.

If we demand the impossible it’s just possible that a generation from now we’ll look back on cycling today and wonder how on earth we managed … And we’ll look around and smile at the sight of Britain cycling.