A Campaigner’s Conundrum

24 Jul

When I first got started in campaigning everything seemed to be black and white; Dutch infrastructure is the answer and all politicians were the obstruction. However as I have become more involved with campaigning and working with councils and other groups, a series of logically, morally and practically challenging decisions have been consistently thrown at me.

As an example of one of these decisions let us take a typical British high street and the kind of redevelopment that seems to be all too common. The high street consists of a couple of rows of shops, a small car park to the rear of the shops, narrow pavements and a large single-carriageway road straight through the middle. The local council decides that the street is in need of regeneration in order to compete with the out of town superstores (which are naturally a more pleasant option if you can only get about by car) and draws up plans to widen the pavements and narrow the carriageway in an effort to increase pedestrian footfall and reduce traffic speeds.

Naturally your first reaction as a campaigner is to go “Where is the space 4 cycling? How are you going to get people out of their cars if the narrow lanes make cycling through the high street terrifying?” Now the average council would respond to this with either a “Get lost you hippies!” or attempt to placate these angry campaigners by tossing a small amount of money on the table for ‘cycling’. This money is only typically enough for a some cycle parking stands, a toucan crossing or the conversion of a stretch of pavement for shared use.

Now this is where things start to get a little tricky, the council is adamant that that is all the money they can spare for cycling (bugging them may get you a few more stands or slightly different design of shared-use pavement, but little else) and they are extremely unlikely to torpedo the entire scheme based on a few cyclists. So you are pretty much left with the options of either a) accepting a slightly modified version of the scheme or  b) roundly dismissing the entire scheme on the basis of it not being Dutch enough. Let’s have a look at what each of these options entails.

If you go ahead and accept something like a shared-use pavement extension (even with noted objections) then you have just handed the council a big ‘cyclist approved’ rubber stamp and are extremely likely to see similar designs and pittances for infrastructure again. As well as this you now have a sub-standard piece of infrastructure that the vast majority of the population as well as at least a third of bicycle users will avoid and is also a far cry from the type of infrastructure that would deliver any sort of meaningful shift to bicycle transportation. However you now have a safe (for bicycle users at least) and legal, albeit slow and poor quality, cycle way alongside a fast and busy 35 mph traffic route. That 7 year old that cycles to school with his mother on the pavement, that teenager that feels uncomfortable with traffic and those one or two people that live on the route itself now have a place to cycle. When I first got my girlfriend into cycling we rode practically everywhere on the pavements as she felt uncomfortable around any sort of motor traffic and a shared-use pavement was always a welcome alternative to what is seen by many as a profoundly anti-social activity.

Looking at the other side of the picture, refusing to support and even opposing the plans would mean denting the council’s cycling credibility, sending a clear message that what is being done is not good enough and eventually setting the stage for the infrastructure that is needed for a cycling shift. However unless you have the backing of a pretty large campaign organisation your protests are likely to fall on deaf ears and without a doubt the council will find some group somewhere to approve their plans (mentioning no names here). As well as this constant opposition risks burning quite a few bridges along the way and damaging relations with the very people that could actually affect change. Even if the cycling aspect is blocked by campaigning it is unlikely that the council will be able to bank the money for a future scheme, particularly if the funding was achieved through a section 106 agreement or is part of a government grant. This means that the alternative to those small sections of good-ish infrastructure, is often nothing at all for cycling.

As you can see the answer is far from straightforward, do you abandon those cycling already and refuse money for cycling (provided it is for cycling and not a completely different beast: see Turbogate and the New Forest car parks) or do you accept that you are unlikely to get better schemes until proper funding arrives and just work with what you have?

It should be noted that much of this is a product of lack of funding and political will, which can only be rectified by enough people standing together and demanding better. Until that time I guess it is up to us to keep dancing through the moral minefield.

Thanks for reading, would love to hear your thoughts and opinions on how we can keep moving towards proper Space4Cycling.


2 Responses to “A Campaigner’s Conundrum”

  1. mattwardman2000 July 27, 2015 at 2:27 pm #

    I think it comes down to a carefully chosen tactical mix of:

    – Things that cost little.
    – Things that give an identifiable benefit to a particular group of people.
    – Thnigs that allow utility cycling to expand.
    – Things that are achievable.
    – Things that draw allies together.
    – Things where clear credit can be claimed.

    My current idea is to unblock existing decent cycling infrastructure where people don’t use it because of those insane barriers. Hopefully to initially give casual users somewhere non-threatening to use their bikes. That is a start with almost no expenditure.

  2. MJ Ray, a KLWNBUG member July 27, 2015 at 7:27 pm #

    Definitely don’t accept rubbish. Maybe oppose it, setting out the safe minimum and the ideal space4cycling publicly, but I feel the priority is to get local cyclists working together. Places like Cambridge didn’t get strong campaigning organisations by abandoning those cycling already and just waiting for decent funding: they got them because cyclists there correctly recognised that strong practical cycling groups are a key step towards getting decent solutions.

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