Does Cycling have a future in the UK?

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.

Thankfully, this isn’t our future. Photo: Vauxford

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.

We’re never going to get infrastructure. We need to empty the streets of cars.

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.


7 responses to “Does Cycling have a future in the UK?”

  1. tylerworthing

    How is it possible to ban cars?

    Cars are generally the second most valuable asset people own (after their home), 75% of households have a car.

    In a free and democratic society, how would it be possible to ban cars (given that people like to own and use cars). Would the public just sit by and be told they cannot use their vehicles any more?

    1. There could be some kind of scrappage scheme for petrol and diesel cars. Owners of electric vehicles suitable for use as taxis; like saloons, estates etc. could be asked to hand those over to the council. Less suitable EVs could be recycled, and the batteries used for stationary storage or other projects. All owners could be offered free cargo bikes and perhaps other societal benefits.

      But I would be wary of rewarding car owners who did so much damage, and not rewarding people who never owned a car. That wouldn’t be right. So you’d have to come up with some way of doing it that would make sense.

      But I think if someone took out a PCP loan on a new car, and it was voided and they gave the car back, they’d still be far better off in a private car free society, even if they weren’t reimbursed for the money they had paid up until that point.

      I think the reality is that you’d have to piss some people off in the short term for the good of everyone moving forward. But I think in order to stop lunatics rioting, you’d have to have some kind of reward scheme.

      1. tylerworthing

        But you say people can hand over their cars for a scrappage scheme. How do you force them to do so?

        They wont want to hand them over, legally they can’t be forced.

        I am seeing nothing to suggest that the people of the UK or any nation want to give up on private car ownership and it wont be pissing off some people, it’ll be pissing off most people.

        Banning private cars is incredibly unrealistic, unless we see some sort of Green dictatorship come about.

      2. You can pass laws to ban or phase things out, as has been done in history for all sorts of things that we once thought were beneficial, before later realising were harmful.

        You say people would miss their cars. If we were to do a national experiment for a day, a weekend or a week where no one drove a private car, or perhaps even a taxi, unless they were disabled; I think the vast majority of people would enjoy it and not want to go back. Society would function just fine for the most part.

        Obviously, any transition to a car free society would require full re-nationalisation of the trains, buses and coaches, and a massive investment to bring them up to a high standard. So it couldn’t happen overnight, but within a couple of years, you could get there.

        There’s a reason why Centre Parcs don’t allow cars to be driven around their parks, except for arrival and departure days. It’s because it’s a really nice and pleasant experience. I remember that from being 12 or 13. Maybe that shaped my view of the world.

      3. tylerworthing

        I am not sure I agree. A week without using a car would effectively mean a week without work for many or a week without seeing loved ones.

        Society has becomes accustomed to hyper mobility and outside of all but the largest cities, without a car, life can become more difficult. Especially with family and work commitments.

        I can see less car ownership in larger cities, with the promotion of car clubs, but nothing indicates the majority will agree to give up on owning a car.

        Banning car ownership is unprecedented. It has never been done before. It would have to be a global effort (could you imagine if one small nation tried it and others didn’t).

        Until civilisation collapses, if indeed it does, I cannot see mass car ownership going away anytime soon (unless technological advances see them become obsolete).

      4. It’s interesting that you mention technical advances that make them obsolete. I don’t think that’s going to be the reason. I was talking to my Dad yesterday and having a catch up by email, and when I was talking about getting rid of cars, he brought up how growing up in the 50s and 60s in Worthing, his family would go out on their bikes, and there was almost no traffic. It sounded like bliss to me. Having grown up in the 90s, I felt, and still do feel hemmed in by busy roads leading out of the town in all directions. You’re denied that special feeling of freedom that riding a bike should provide. And I think maybe a lot of younger people than me are starting to realise what we’ve lost too. The generations after millennials aren’t so keen on driving, and so there is a possibility it will shift quite quickly, even if the climate doesn’t get that much worse in the next decade or so. I personally don’t think the climate will stay as it is. It seems to be on the precipice of rapid and scary changes. So presumably that could hasten the shift away from cars more.

        I think you could be right though that it may continue pretty strongly until society collapses. We could see driving tests and car ownership drop, but maybe not as much as some are suggesting. Especially somewhere like Worthing which, even though it is a dense area, people are thoroughly brainwashed by the car culture. And also because we lack the quality public transport of a big city, or any bike infrastructure whatsoever, as I’ve talked about a lot.

        On the climate front, I think there’s a strong chance we’ll get another 40 degree day this year. Maybe more than one. And then I think it’ll just keep unravelling from there. Once the El Niño weather pattern comes back, as it looks like it will later this year, next year could smash every record in the book for heat and probably rain. That’s based on scientists I’ve been following for years. I’m obviously not a scientist. Just a nerd who watches a lot of videos on climate change.

      5. And I also think it’s ridiculous to say many would be unable to work for that week. If it’s literally the only way for someone to do their job, then drive. And obviously I’m not including work vehicles in the first place. We don’t live in a big country. The distances are not that far. Most people live less than 5 miles from work. An unfit person can cycle it. I know, I’ve done it. If you want to get somewhere, you can get there in a reasonable amount of time if you had to. So that’s just absurd in my opinion.

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