Friday, 9 December 2016

Change Didn't "Just Happen"

I have been much heartened by a number of recent events which I saw in tweets in the last month, as I expect have many other people who care about the way cycling can transform cities.

Tweets this Month

This tweet from pointed to the post here with the full story
I think the graph says it all. Sometime in the late 80's bike riding in Copenhagen started to increase and by the late 90's car use started to decrease, with the result that 20 years later more than 50% of all journeys are now done bike.  (Average figures in the UK are around 2% of journeys done by bike, and even in the very best cities it is nowhere near 50%).

Things are looking up in London too - there was this from @mragilligan.   
Build the right infrastructure and people will use it!

Finally there was this from @CarltonReid
Cycleways map.
There are significantly more cycle paths in the Netherlands and Belgium and Germany than there are in France and the UK.

This is great for those countries that have invested, but for those of us in the UK (with the exception of a very small number of cities) the situation is much worse than it looks.  The red lines shown on the UK map are the Sustrans network.  I'm a great supporter of Sustrans, but I would have to admit that realistically these paths are mostly not dedicated cycle infrastructure, but are carefully chosen quiet routes that are not necessarily the quickest route between places - so great for recreation, but often not ideal commuter infrastructure.

How did Change Happen?

Our family was discussing the reasons why some countries have been so much more effective at building cycle infrastructure than the UK when Tom said ...
"These things didn't just happen - people made them happen"
... and that led me to thinking about what did happen?  Clearly at some stage some city councils and governments have been persuaded by the arguments that don't need rehearsing here (liveable cities, pollution, gridlock, noise, health, death on the roads, etc.) and have got behind the cycling movement. Once this happens properly you are in business - 

  • cycling infrastructure spend increases, 
  • planning permissions are only granted when developers improve the bicycle infrastructure, 
  • lanes are removed from roads to make way for the people walking and on cycles, 
  • employers that allow car-parking pay a tariff towards cycle infrastructure,
  • public transport is required to carry cycles for free, etc.

... and everything gets into a virtuous circle; as infrastructure improves, so more people come by bike, so infrastructure is improved to meet the demand.

There are many cities where this change to a people centred city has happened and I will save a few of their stories for another post.  

At this moment I am interested in what happened in, say, Amsterdam or Copenhagen in the 1980's that succeeded in convincing governments and city councils to make these changes.  It must have been hard!  At a time when the car had become king, and Thatcher was reputedly suggesting that a man who didn't have a car in his 30's should consider himself a complete failure, and global warming was still denied by the right wing - it must have been difficult for leaders to be so visionary and to move against what was so obviously the "Peoples' choice" - the car.

And indeed, it turns out that, certainly initially, the leaders were not so visionary! They needed persuading. 

I had previously seen the film "Bicycle", and this related the story of Dutch society changing direction after a few well publicized deaths of children on the roads.  It all sounded rather consensual and as if society "got it" and changed autonomously.  This is not what happened.  For a better picture of what happened you could read "How the Dutch got their cycling infrastructure", "How Amsterdam became the bicycle capital of the world", and you will read about the formation of Stop de Kindermoord ("Stop the child murder")  - the activist group that formed after the deaths mentioned above, and we are told that:

"The 1970s were a great time for being angry in Holland: activism and civil disobedience were rampant. Stop de Kindermoord grew rapidly and its members held bicycle demonstrations, occupied accident blackspots, and organised special days during which streets were closed to allow children to play safely."

.. and there is plenty more about critical mass rides, guerrilla cycle path painting, rolling out carpet cycle lanes across parked cars, etc.
"Painting cycle lanes, Amsterdam 1980" from
How the Dutch got their cycling infrastructure

So my point is that their leaders did not create the excellent Dutch infrastructure because they were visionaries who saw the right way for society; they did so because a section of society was very forcibly making a case - and that case was right even if not popular!  

It is really very difficult for our leaders to construct any logical argument against increasing cycling except by showing that there is no evidence of the demand. However, this is usually the sticking point: if the demand is not there then the authorities won't invest, but the majority of people will not cycle until the infrastructure is there, as demonstrated by the London experience in the tweet above.

So if we want change in most of the UK, my argument says, then we have to show the leaders (city and county councillors) that there is a demand. How can we do that?  In my city (Southampton) 12,000 people turning up for a Sky ride round the streets does not appear to be convincing enough.  It seems that if we are going to win this fight we want some of those 12,000 people to be more radically activist. Like the Dutch! (yes, the phonological ambiguity was intended :-)

Postscript: or Maybe I am Wrong?

I don't feel very comfortable advocating radical activism.  Even in my youth I was always the one to believe that consensus and good sense would prevail if only people understood the facts and the effects that certain behaviours and decisions would have on other people.

In Southampton, at this moment, the City Council is collecting feedback on a draft Cycling Plan - see the plan and my feedback in the post here -  and there is much discussion in the cycling community about whether this the plan is serious, and how to respond.  (I am certain that this story will be the same in councils across the UK). There appear to be two courses of action we could take:
  1. We could take the Council at face value, and believe that they have a real intention to see this through and implement the strategy or something close to it.  In that case we should warmly congratulate those involved in the production of the plan and do everything we can do to help them steer it through what will inevitably be a difficult inception at a time when budgets are so tight and when it is easier to maintain the status quo than to invest in making transport better, less polluting and less expensive in the future.
  2. Those that have been cycle campaigning longer are usually more cynical. They feel that this plan is nothing more than a sop or concession to government and funding initiatives which require councils to show that they are doing something about transport and about pollution.  They feel that the council has absolutely no intention of implementing the plan and they point to the lack of serious funding or implementation detail as evidence for this view.  These people argue for a far more activist and confrontational approach to change.
So what are we to do?

Possibly we have arrived at the point in the evolution of cities and transport systems where even councils are beginning to understand the damage that we are creating?  I'd like to believe that this plan genuinely is a first attempt to change things.  I've been around change management long enough to know that there will be setbacks on the way, but I'd like to support the council in every way possible.  

But I suspect that a bit of "irresponsible" activism (from a lot of people) would help our council to remain responsible  and focussed when trying to navigate the difficult times ahead!

Now, where's my paintbrush....?


  1. Interesting Hugh.
    Quite possibly we really have arrived at a turning point in Soton.

    The difficulty I have is that the council are way too unimaginative.

    One example: I looked at their maps and noted that the travel-to-work-area stopped at city boundaries; that people in Eastleigh, Romsey, the Waterside simply didn't exist.

    The Cardiff planners talk about "joining up" disjointed cycle lanes. In Soton that as yet hasn't occurred to the council. No one builds a road that isn't connected to the rest of the road network. Except I recall one in Salisbury in the 70s, when they built a flyover that literally ended in mid-air because the builders ran out of money.

    I'd like to believe that Soton Council is in the process of thinking about changing the motor road juggernaut's course. I'd like to believe that they mean business and will follow through. But they have a long and arduous process to get through, and funding is a major obstacle. The Dutch example above, and the London Cycle Campaign example suggests that constant pressure will be needed and over a prolonged period, as you suggest. If only because road engineers need to relearn how to provide for cyclists and pedestrians.

    Brian Burnell.

  2. The bible on re-engineering space for liveable citiesmust have been written by Utrect! This uterly inspiring website has lots of lovely pictures (and planning designs) that show the before and afters that can be achieved.

  3. christania’s “bike rental copenhagen” bikes are rolling across the city. The system, less than a year old, is funded by christania’s municipal government. It is currently only in one of christania’s 22 administrative districts. Although a 2nd generation system, there are 12 “Houses” in this district, each with around 40 bikes. The yearly subscription cost is the equivalent of $2 US, and allows the use of a bike for up to four hours at a time. In less than a year, there have been 6,000 subscriptions sold. There are larger 3rd generation systems in the world, which do not have a subscription to bike ratio as big as that.