Considering that the already paltry cycling and walking budget just got slashed by two thirds; you might expect me to throw my hands up in exasperation and head on down to the nearest SUV dealership (that’s pretty much what they are these days) and place an order for a trendy Ford Puma or equivalent from any other brand.
Shockingly though, I’m not going to do that. Our future isn’t to give up and fit in. And here’s why.
This latest budget cut and effective middle finger to cycling for transport in the UK just reaffirms my strongly held belief that we need to ban private cars and use the roads as bike lanes in the very near future (as in now). I already felt that time was too short with respect to the climate crisis, and that half-decent infrastructure change, built over decades, would be grossly insufficient to make any real impact. But now, not only do we know that slow, incremental change will be completely ineffectual in any relevant timescale; but we also know unequivocally that there will not be any significant infrastructure change at all, even in the medium term. The dream the eternal optimists in my local cycling group had of ubiquitous, Dutch style infrastructure is completely, utterly dead.
Having said that, it probably still won’t be enough to deter these people, which is partly why I decided to stop involving myself in the local advocacy. Metaphorically banging my head against a brick wall in those meetings and Facebook groups was growing a bit tiresome, to say the least. So, I guess they can continue lobbying the town council that has no money and no power to do anything about the roads anyway; and the county council, that is openly trolling us about cycling, and one of the handful of counties across the UK rated as 0 out of 5 by Active Travel England. Not that they have much funding to give out after this first tranche anyway. I hope they wake up, but I’m not so sure they will.
Either way, I think I’ll stick with offering ideas that might actually lead to achieving something in short order, rather than next century.
So I suppose you could almost call these cuts a good thing? That may be going a bit far. We do need some infrastructure to separate bikes from the vehicles that do remain after we ban private cars. There will still be buses, coaches, trucks and some vans (although no doubt many of them will be replaced with cargo bikes). But the good news is that this kind of infrastructure wouldn’t be hard to add later on. With so few vehicles on the roads, and buses not getting stuck in traffic, there would be no road rage and bikes and bigger vehicles would be perfectly able to share the mostly empty space.
The other type of infrastructure – my favourite kind, the LTN, or Low Traffic Neighbourhood, is so cheap, quick and easy that it almost doesn’t need to be mentioned. But just as a quick refresher, you put some bollards at the ends of a road to stop through traffic, and that’s it. It’s so simple, even a Tory could understand it. I don’t think they want to, but still.
Speaking of Tories, I’ve been thinking recently about the Highway Code changes, where vulnerable road users have been given priority at junctions and so on. It changed over a year ago now, but I still see Highway Code trending on Twitter almost every day. I know the rules changed before Boris Johnson got booted out of office, so on first glance it wouldn’t appear that a pro-cycling PM would want to stoke increased tension on the roads by changing the Highway Code rules and then not publicising it very well. But it’s not as if Boris Johnson was ever that supportive of quality infrastructure. Like most Tories, he told people to cycle, without actually providing any infrastructure to do so. Other than the public hire bikes (operated by private company Serco of course). And he didn’t even implement that. It’s commonly known that Ken Livingstone, the London Mayor before him, green-lit the project.
When you consider this, it does seem more plausible that the Tories could have been planning all along to turn cycling into a big culture war topic at the next election. Seeing what Sunak and his cabinet are willing to do in terms of demonising asylum seekers, underfunding the NHS, disrespecting and underpaying striking workers while refusing to come to the negotiating table with serious offers; going after “woke cyclists” seems like an obvious next step. The Highway Code change may have been a happy coincidence for them, but it’s irrelevant. What matters is it sets them up perfectly.
So what can we do? I guess the first thing would be to just stop thinking about Dutch style infrastructure projects. As I’ve mentioned above, some people are a bit beyond help in this regard; but those of us in the real world need to focus fully on three aspects. Banning cars, bike parking, and LTNs, as previously mentioned. These are all things that can be and are being delivered to varying degrees by progressive councils (or even moderate councils) for very little cost. Banning cars is the most difficult to achieve in total, but we do see some towns and cities banning cars from historic centres, or introducing low emission zones, which I think are over complicated and not worth doing personally. I’ll talk more about banning cars later. As far as parking and LTNs, town councils can’t build bike paths, but they can get rid of car parks and replace them with bike parks. That’s certainly the biggest tool available in a situation like here in Worthing, where the town council is pro-cycling and the county council is about as oppositional to cycling as it’s possible to be. In other places where the councils in charge of roads are more amenable to our demands, LTNs can be introduced rapidly and make a huge difference in making areas feel safe and welcoming for people not in cars. They can start with temporary schemes to test how they would work before being made permanent, which is incredibly useful. If your local council has the power to remove street parking, then that can also be a quick way of making progress by replacing spaces with Bike Hangars for example. There’s also the potential for town councils to turn vacant town centre shops into indoor bike parking. So there definitely are ways you can push your council, even if they don’t have control over roads or bike lanes.
We can achieve a lot through those three avenues, but to ban private cars entirely, you need central government to play ball; and that is where you encounter that familiar problem which tends to come up when you want to do anything good in society. It’s Capitalism, and the urgent need to dispense with it in favour of Degrowth Communism. This is partly why I haven’t been posting as much recently. Every time I come up with an idea for a problem that needs fixing, ultimately it always comes back to the economic system. The ultimate solution is always the same, whether it be cycling, public transport, inequality, healthcare etc.
However, we do at least know what is officially no longer on the table, and that is a very helpful thing in my view. With this government (and probably the next one too), we’re only going to get some tarmac shared pavements and some paint. Once we all (or most of us) accept that, I think we can become a lot more effective in terms of potential protests and making a real impact. I’m thinking along the lines of the Just Stop Oil slow marching protests, but on bikes. I can definitely see that kind of thing being the result of the anger and desperation people who want a cycling future are feeling at the moment. It’ll be interesting to see if it happens before or after the government officially start their anti-cycling culture war push. But either way, I think it’s inevitable at this point.
When you look at the EU pushing for e-bikes and cargo bikes, with the uptake being so strong in those countries; the damage Brexit has done to cycling imports and exports; and you see us going backwards from a position most people didn’t think we could go backwards from; you can clearly see how untenable this situation is. It can’t be allowed to go on any longer. It’s time for very targeted campaigns and mass protest.
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