Are we witnessing the birth of a cycling boom in Britain? New cycleways and filtering projects coming on stream in London (thanks to Transport for London and the boroughs such as Camden and Waltham Forest) offer the potential for revolutionary change in British cycle policies.
Or, are we facing ten years of stasis, another lost decade marked by continued disregard for cycling as a transport mode by central, devolved, regional and local authorities alike? This, certainly, is what the government’s recent Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy, with its pathetically minimal funding, promises.
The answer has to be that the future could take either course (or indeed some other course, but for the purposes of this article let’s pretend that there are two quite distinct possibilities).
An energetic twitter exchange between Carlton Reid, journalist & author, and Katya Leyendecker, an academic and campaigner, about this question prompted me to write this blog. The twitter exchange followed an article by Carlton in BikeBizNews reporting some pessimistic view of prospects for investment in cycling in the opinion of his contacts in industry and the professions.
& Katya’s reply: http://www.bikebiz.com/news/read/changing-the-record/019359
Katya found Carlton’s tone too negative and wanted him to report as well on the potential for change for the better. She tweeted, ‘I think it’s glass half-empty [to say that there was] “no chance that there will be any national investment.”’
Carlton’s twitter response was, ‘I am not predicting, I am reporting, after talking to folks at the very top who know exactly what’s coming.’
I have much sympathy with Carlton here. We need journalists to report all points of view and not to act as cheerleaders. We need to know as much as possible about the situation we are in and what might be possible to change that situation to the better.
Many of the greatest blunders in history have followed on from misunderstanding the starting situation, the intentions and motives and capabilities of others. Trying to establish the actual prospects we face following publication of the government’s wishy-washy document has enormous value.
However, Carlton goes too far in suggesting that his folks can know ‘exactly what’s coming’. This is simply too big a claim. No one can know ‘exactly ‘ what’s going to happen in the future (especially journalists, historians and sundry experts, who have lamentable records when it comes to predicting events). A common rule of thumb is to say that no prediction will be totally correct (though many will be totally incorrect). Looking into the future is about assessing the options and likelihoods, not just about relaying the thoughts and wisdoms of the better-connected experts. But more important, both experts and the rest of us can also easily overlook the potential for contingent events to affect what happens.
Only a month or two ago the present British government was at the top of its game having won the 2015 election and then seen the election of a rather ineffectual leader of the opposition. The government looked forward after the 2020 election to at least one, probably two or more, terms in government.
But, look how much its prospects have changed in recent weeks: a bungled budget, a botched response to the Mossack Fonseca leak, and all to the background of a civil war that threatens to rip the Tory party asunder. I doubt any experts predicted the sudden crisis of confidence that would strike the recently victorious government.
Carlton’s (reported) predictions may well turn out to be more or less what happens in reality. But it is a mistake to assume that the path of the future is pre-determined.
Yes, the car is deeply embedded in the economy, topography and psychology of modern life. To imagine life without overwhelming reliance on cars is beyond most people. To the average cycle campaigner it must seem that the power of the oil and motor industries is unassailable. But history has many examples of seemingly permanently entrenched institutions that collapse in a fairly short time span.
In the late 1980s many experts predicted that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (and the Apartheid State of South Africa) would survive and thrive into the future. They were, we were told, too solidly buttressed and too powerful to change (or at least not without apocalyptic violence). But, in both cases a crisis of confidence in the ruling elites of hollowed-out, contradiction-ridden societies led to the surprisingly rapid dissolution of those seemingly all-controlling, security-obsessed states.
Change can happen much more quickly than looks likely to those who live in the shadow of some impressive-looking social edifice, whether it be the Soviet ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ or the Reign of the Car.
We can see signs of the crisis of confidence within the realms of Transport for London (TfL) and the Mayor’s office. A steady growth in cycling numbers, a critical level of fatalities and astute campaigning (aided by the organizational & propagandizing wonders of the internet) combined to weaken the traditional attitude of London’s circles of governance towards cycling: ‘no demand, no space, no way.’
By the skin of his teeth, in the last few months of his tenure, Boris Johnson, aided by Andrew Gilligan and presumably others less well known, shattered that old approach. The cycleways have established, even before they are officially opened, that if you build quality cycle facilities there is indeed much demand for them, that there is enough space if you re-allocate it from often wasted functions (such as wide striped lanes in the centre of roads) and that, given the political will, there is very definitely a way: a Cycleway.
Few could have predicted that this would happen and happen so quickly. London Cycling Campaign was engaged in the organizational equivalent of contemplating its navel – talking about changing its name from London Cycling Campaign to London Cyclists – and had to move sharply to catch up when a bottom up campaign caught it out introverting. Other established cycling organizations have not caught up as rapidly as LCC, and, to the great sorrow of many of us, Sustrans seems not to even have noticed the on-going revolution in attitudes to the desired quality of cycle facilities.
So, that’s all a long-winded introduction to my countering Carlton’s assertion that he or his contacts know ‘exactly’ what is going to happen. Chances are that it will turn out as Carlton reports/predicts. But there are always countervailing forces, as society is made up of multiple interlocking, overlapping, cooperating and conflicting forces. What actually happens depends on the ever-changing interactions of these forces. Things that look firmly entrenched (the Czar or the Car) may be ready to crumble.
The issue at heart is how firmly entrenched is the motor vehicle. Any attempt to provide for alternatives, such as the humble cycleway, can give rise to the most incredible opposition, indulging in an Alice in Wonderland anti-logic, where the non-polluting bike becomes responsible for pollution, not the fossil-fuel burning machines that actually create it, and space-efficient bicycles become the cause of all congestion anywhere, anytime in the foul air of the Great Wen.
Just look at the exaggerated rhetoric of the anti-cycleway London cabbies and ‘StopCS11Hell’ doom-mongers: you ‘won’t be able to get to see your dentist in Maida Vale,’ or visit ‘Theatreland’ and ‘London’s arteries will clog up and the city will die,’ (yes, that has been claimed). It seems obvious, to many if not to most, that modern society cannot function without millions of motors parading around our cities and towns.
The powerful industrial interests of British cotton mill owners opposed the emancipation of American slaves (it had already been outlawed in the British Empire). ‘So crucial was slave labour [to the mid-19th century British economy] that the Liverpool Chronicle and European Times warned that if slaves ever should be emancipated, cotton cloth prices might double or triple, with devastating consequences for Britain.’ In 1844 ‘A Cotton Spinner’ wrote, “Emancipation [of US slaves] might shake Britain to its “very foundations”.
US slavery was abolished after the Civil War despite the immensely powerful British and American cotton industry lobbies, which had previously and successfully persuaded their respective governments to conduct industrial, trade, financial, foreign and military policies in their favour.
Despite all that entrenched power, the plantation owners lost out to other interests (especially those of cotton manufacturers) and social currents (rooted in Enlightenment ideas about human rights) in addition to purely economic interests. Yet, many simply believed that life would end without slavery, just as many nowadays many believe modern life would be unlivable without a car.
However well entrenched a social or political or cultural or industrial institution may appear to be, it will have weaknesses, internal contradictions and all sorts of opposing forces. These external and internal influences can lead to crises of confidence and consequent rapid change.
Such problems can easily be hidden when an institution is on the rise or has reached a dominant position. But eventually they eat away at the functioning internal organs and expose the fragility of the institution. The Ottoman Empire inflicted some shattering defeats on the British Empire in the First World War, at Gallipoli and at Kut (in Iraq). For the first time, European imperial forces suffered serious defeats at the hands of an army of a non-European, non-industrialized state. Yet, this was the high water mark for the Ottomans. Even as it achieved these military victories, internal contradictions fatally undermined the Empire’s ability to prolong its war effort and the Ottoman Empire joined the Romanov, Austro-Hungarian and German Empires as immediate victims of the devastating war they (and others) had started in expectation of easy victory.
One internal contradiction that will have unpredictable effects on multiple aspects of the world of the automobile is what will happen when it does become automatic. The consequences of self-driving automobiles are all but impossible to predict and the role of driving software may well present challenges to industry and socially condoned road driving practices. We allow dangerous styles of driving because the effort of enforcing road law would be too disruptive to society for many reasons. However, the introduction of driving software offers an opportunity for social currents to lobby for safer driving practices precisely because judges and juries are less likely to feel the sympathy for corporate software interests than they do for fellow drivers. I’m not predicting what will happen, but new possibilities will open up for campaigners against the dominance of the fast, urban motoring model.
Most important, what Carlton’s deterministic prediction omits is any appreciation of the potential for the solid-seeming car culture to collapse of its own contradictions – if given sufficient push by campaigners for change. What Carlton’s experts cannot know is how independent actors – cycling campaigners, air quality campaigners, urban walking campaigners and others – will act and organize.
One prediction I will make is that the new London cycleways will prove to be highly successful and very popular, broadening the appeal of cycling in the capital.
The next mayor of London will have to face a strong, reasonably well organized cycling lobby that will be on a roll, it’s own predictions confirmed about safe, attractive, protected cycleways (and other effective approaches such as filtering).
The nay-sayers will look foolish and as a result the absurdity of their propaganda about cycleways causing pollution and congestion will look ever more ridiculous. Outside the capital, it is guaranteed that campaigners in Cardiff, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, Belfast, Glasgow and Edinburgh, and in many other places, will be pointing to London and saying ‘we want that here’.
And, among the public, people will be saying to themselves and others, ‘I could cycle on something like that.’
Cycle campaigning has grown in the last few years, but it may well be on the verge of achieving an even faster rate of growth. The confidence and level of expectation of the British cycling lobby is about to collide head on with the paltry ambitions of the government for cycling.
When Isambard Kingdom Brunel was informed that the rail locomotive in which he was heading west on the GWR was steaming straight towards a locomotive on the same single track coming from the opposite direction, he ordered the driver to go faster, aiming, he hoped, to push the oncoming loco aside through ‘superior momentum’.
The question is, can we divert the government’s measly projected strategy by the superior momentum of our growing movement and our own more expansive strategy? The future is not determined.