Cycling Demonstration Towns – an interview

Prior to 2005 the city where I live, Lancaster, already had some pretty decent cycling infrastructure, such as this wonderful bridge over the River Lune. But the last five years have seen an acceleration in the provision for cycling in the district. Lancaster (with Morecambe) became a Cycling Demonstration Town in 2005. Via Cycling England, which is funded by the Department for Transport, it has received increased funding for cycling (relative to other parts of England), in order (it is hoped) to prove that ‘serious’ funding for cycling will produce results.

Early in 2010 I was interviewed by Lee Hewitson, a Masters student at Lancaster Environment Centre, which is where I work. Lee was part of a team of MSc students who, for one of their modules, had decided to focus on Lancaster’s status as a Cycling Demonstration Town, and to ask the question, ‘what difference has that status made?’

The students did a fantastic report on their research, including a great poster. It was a real pleasure to be included in their investigations. And of course, it provided me with a rare opportunity to reflect on what I make of the (supposedly pro-cycling) changes taking place around me. Lee kindly sent me a transcript of our conversation, and I’ve put it here (editing it slightly first) because it serves, if only for me, as a record of my (always shifting) thoughts on living, cycling and thinking about cycling in one of England’s first wave of Cycling Demonstration Towns.

“On the prospects of Lancaster becoming a Cycling Demonstration Town (CDT)”

“Personally, at that time (2005) I was very cynical because I thought Lancaster was a crappy place to cycle. I still think it’s a reasonably crappy place to cycle although it’s got a lot better. I thought Cycling England shouldn’t be throwing money at a place which has shown very little political support and very little vision towards cycling over the years. But the City Council understandably saw a pot of money it could get, and Green Party activists got very involved in putting together a bid to get the CDT project here, and if it hadn’t been for local Green Party activists it probably wouldn’t have happened.”

“Do you feel that the CDT project has been a success in Lancaster so far?”

“I think you would have to say it’s been partially successful. Has it got many more people on bikes? No. It has got a few more people on bikes I think. I don’t trust any of the monitoring and evaluation…… you can read into it whatever you want to read into it. Anecdotally, which is arguably even less reliable, I think there are probably a few more people on bikes than there would have been five years ago, particularly on sunny days in summer, when people have definitely increased their willingness to get on a bike and ride down to Glasson Dock or whatever.

“Probably more people have bought bikes, and I think the bike shops would corroborate that. At the University, there are probably more commuter cyclists as well. But, at the start of the project Dynamo (Lancaster and District Cycle Campaign) pushed the City Council to adopt a vision to double cycling in three years from 2005-2008. We knew that was ambitious and that the Council would no way have set that goal if left to its own devices, but we thought well it’s better to encourage the Council to set a goal which it feels it has to work towards rather than just saying ‘oh we’re trying to promote cycling’, with no vision whatsoever. So it felt like an ambitious vision, but nonetheless to me, at that time it also felt entirely plausible. There were things in 2005 that could have been done to double cycling within three years; there still are things in 2010 that could be done in the next year to double cycling in the next three years. It’s really obvious to me what those things are and it’s pretty obvious how you do them…….and they don’t actually cost that much money, but the City Council has completely failed to do any of those things.

“There are good reasons why it’s failed to do them; on the one hand I would want to be critical of the City Council and some of the key officers involved, but on the other hand I’m well aware that they work within very difficult institutional contexts and their hands are tied in all kinds of ways. They have their frustrations in the same way I have mine, watching what they’re doing.”

“One of the main aims of the CDT programme is to encourage new cyclists. How do you perceive the measures which have been taken to try to achieve this?”

“There have been some really good initiatives, and there have been some really good people involved, trying to do their best. You do need things like more cycle training in schools, which there has been. You need to provide support to returning adult or novice cyclists, which there has been. There have been good bike maintenance classes. There has been an admittedly limited and insufficient ‘rides programme’ to encourage people to get on their bikes. There has been some reasonable marketing – the website is OK. And there have been attempts to signpost the Greenway (the main off-road cycle route linking Lancaster and Morecambe), making it much more accessible and legible.

“So things like that are great, but what hasn’t happened, which is the most important thing which needs to happen to get more people lacking in confidence onto bikes, is any radical re-modification of the existing road environment. Everything that’s happened for as long as I’ve been in Lancaster is tinkering with the edges, or fiddling whilst Rome burns. Everyone is still addicted to their cars, and if you just muck around with the edges of the transport system, you’re not actually going to achieve modal shift. If you’re saying you want to double cycling, you’re talking about modal shift. You’re not saying you want someone to ride a bike twice more each year when the sun is shining and they want to have a day out. You want people to ride bikes day in, day out, and you don’t do that by mucking around with the edges and not doing anything fundamental. Everyone who’s passionate about cycling knows that, but I get really frustrated when I see people who have got some ability to challenge a little bit more radically through their positions and just not doing it.”

“Do you feel that the infrastructure, particularly designated lanes and routes, as well as signposts are ‘new-user’ friendly?”

“There was some existing infrastructure in place which was friendly to novice cyclists, such as the cycle track out to the Crook O’ Lune. They’re on derelict railway lines which are flat and off-road, and novice cyclists do use those. So there are good cycle routes which are attractive and appealing to novice cyclists, but they have got to get to those routes……and they need to be able to cycle from where they live to where they want to go. Nearly everyone we’ve spoken to in our research (the ‘Understanding Walking and Cycling’ project) is still really nervous about riding on the roads in Lancaster because nothing very much has changed, and that’s the dominant cycling environment. That is the cycling infrastructure that’s there that anyone can use any of the time, but at the moment, conditions on the cycling infrastructure are too difficult for most people, novice cyclists especially, to want to engage with. You can have things like Penny Street Bridge, where there’s been some modification to that junction to supposedly make it better for cyclists. It makes it a bit better for me, but a little old lady, or a 45-year-old guy who is just thinking about getting out of his white van for the first time and riding a bike isn’t going to be comfortable negotiating that junction, even after they’ve just spent £250,000 on it.”

“That’s what we found when we did our observations on that particular part of the one-way system. When we were crossing we weren’t sure where we were supposed to be. So for a novice cyclist it’s very difficult.”

“In fairness, you’re always going to get those kinds of teething problems with new infrastructure, and one of the difficulties with cycling infrastructure is that by the time you’ve negotiated that junction twenty times, you’ll probably have established a way of doing it. Nonetheless, you’ve got to do it twenty times to get that routine, and if actually most people do it once or twice and think ‘I’m not doing that again’, then you’ve lost them.”

“Do you think that the alternative route (between Aldcliffe Road and St George’s Quay) is a viable route as opposed to using the one-way system, particularly for novice cyclists? Have you ever used it?”

“I use a part of that route every day……but I wouldn’t use it as a way of avoiding the one-way system….”

“Do you think that route has been made for novice cyclists who might be scared to use the one-way system? And if so, do you think it is a good route? Because we didn’t think it was, at all.”

“To some extent, yes. The City Council has known for a long time that the one-way system is a big problem, and Dynamo has run consultations over the years and asked people what stops them getting on bikes and you can guarantee that the number one reason people will give in Lancaster is the one-way system. So there’s definitely seen to be a demand for creating alternative routes. But to what extent they are alternative routes to the one-way system….. I think the City Council will frame them like that’s the case, but I’d also argue that what we’re encouraging them to do is to just create a much denser network of cycling routes…… people more options. It’s perfectly acceptable for the City Council to create those kinds of links (alternative routes), the problem becomes when they start marketing them as an alternative route to something, because people then expect them to be seamless and continuous and really well sign-posted, and it’s really hard to do those things. And it’s also passing the buck, because it’s like, just improve the one-way system……just transform one lane of the gyratory around Lancaster into a bus and cycle lane, just ban cars from it. It’s entirely plausible.”

“Do you think that the city centre one-way cycle route is generally safe? Are there areas which are better than others?”

 “None of it is safe for new cyclists. I mean, I love mixing it with trucks and buses and cars but I know I’m less than 1% of the population, so that’s no good at all. In fairness, the City Council, under pressure from Cycling England, has tried to make the one-way system much more cycle-friendly; but they need to get out and talk to more people who haven’t ridden a bike for twenty years, or a few more parents who ideally would like their kids to ride bikes. Just because there’s a bit of red tarmac, if there are still HGVs (heavy goods vehicles) coming past you within a foot of your right shoulder, or if the cars are still going at 30 or 40 mph, or if you feel like you don’t have any right to be there, then …. It’s almost an impossibility to make that one-way system cycle-friendly without serious speed reduction and serious vehicle elimination.

“But as a campaigner, you suddenly go into this ‘idealist not worth talking to’ category, because you start articulating a vision that is not within the City Council’s ideal work plan, or not something of which the person you’re talking to can convince their boss.

“In your opinion, is there enough information on cycling maps and signs in Lancaster? For example, would it not be a good idea to indicate on maps which routes are suitable for new cyclists?”

“Personally, I think there’s only so much you can do for new cyclists. I think cycling maps and promotional literature that tries to encourage people onto bikes are good, and I think enough is done in those respects. Sometimes, people become so set on ‘how do we get the novice cyclist?’ that we almost become a bit of a nanny state. We’ve got to give them a really nice cycle map, and we’ve got to give them really safe routes, and we’ve got to guide them along every step of the process. I just think that’s not the right way to go about social change. People have initiative and their own goals in life, and what we need to do is transform the conditions in which we live so that more and more people will get the appetite and enthusiasm to get onto bikes. I don’t think you do that by trying to craft every little intervention to the novice cyclist. You do it by selling cycling as a really ace thing to do which will radically improve their lives, and then let them sort it out for themselves. But it needs really positive role modelling from the highest levels of society, together with really fundamental infrastructural and cultural changes.

“I have a similar issue with ‘TravelSmart’ and personalised travel planning. If it’s so hard to get someone onto a bike that you have to go into their house and give them all this information, and talk to them about their barriers and try to overcome every one of them, then maybe it’s just not worth it. Maybe we’re doing something wrong. We shouldn’t be trying that hard to get people onto bikes. Time would be much better spent lobbying politicians and saying ‘stop building big roads across our country, and start investing in a serious cycle infrastructure like the Netherlands or Denmark if you want to get people on bikes.’”

“Do you feel that the CDT monitoring methods have been effective in assessing the success or failure of the project? What improvements could be made in this area?”

“I start from a position of complete distrust towards the monitoring and evaluation methods for two reasons. Firstly, Cycling England is understandably hell-bent on proving that the CDTs work, because if they can’t prove this, the Department for Transport will cut off their funding. Secondly, there’s lip service paid to qualitative judgements about improvements in cycling, but otherwise the monitoring is quantitative, which is limited because cycle counts are really difficult at a time when you’re expanding the cycle infrastructure. So the very act of promoting cycling creates one of the dilemmas of counting cyclists.

“If the Government is serious about finding out whether the Cycling Demonstration Towns project is working, it’s obvious that they should run focus groups with people who still haven’t got on their bikes, people who’ve started to get on their bikes occasionally and people who’ve got on their bikes regularly. But I don’t think they’re doing that kind of stuff.

“But there are bigger issues here. Lancashire County Council is seriously contemplating spending £136 million on one short stretch of road through our local countryside (the Heysham-M6 link – 3 miles of road), and yet we’re meant to show an improvement in cycling levels with £1.5 million spread over three years. And this is where I’m with the City Council really……you look at the amount of money that is devoted to cycling in the transport budget for the UK, and it’s absolutely nothing. We’re meant to be grateful for getting a few million here and there, and then to demonstrate what a massive difference it makes. I’m sorry, but that is not how you get half the population on bikes for half of their journeys, which is what I’m aiming for, and it’s what everyone should be aiming for.”

“In general, what do you perceive to be the main obstacles to cycling in Lancaster, particularly in relation to new cyclists?”

“Well, the thing that stops people from cycling is that they don’t want to ride on busy roads, full of motorised traffic that is going too fast and thinks it’s got the right of way and squeezes them. That’s the reason people don’t cycle. To me, the solution is obvious then – get rid of the problem. If you’re in the Council chamber, people will start saying ‘on your bike’ and ‘get in the real world’, but then you say, well, go to Groningen, Ghent, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Munich – there are so many examples across the world of places which are now hollowing out their city centres, creating places for walking and cycling. They’re just shunting motorised traffic to the periphery, to the M6 in Lancaster, which is where it should be.

“I would accept that sometimes people do need to use cars, and that’s OK, for now anyway. We’ve got to go through a transition. But there’s no way at all that cars should be driven at 35 mph through city centre and residential streets, and that those cars should have right of way.

One of the things I’ve tried to get on the agenda over the last few years is strategic road closures. So start by blocking roads to motorised vehicles, all it takes is a few bollards, you create a cul-de-sac. Bikes can get through, pedestrians can get through, but cars can’t. You start designing and building your environment to send very clear messages to people about what are the right and wrong ways to be travelling around. So you make journeys harder for cars and easier for walking and cycling. One of the problems with Lancaster is the Highways Authority (Lancashire County Council) are dinosaurs. They’re stuck in the 1950s. The car is still king and they’re like ‘you can’t stop cars from moving’, but it’s like, I’m sorry, but that’s precisely what we have to do.

“People still drive into Lancaster city centre all the time. This is really, really tricky but just up the price of car parking charges. There are social equity arguments there which are important and need to be thought about but it’s still too easy to drive cars.”

“So it’s either one or the other, cars or bikes. You can’t improve the infrastructure for cars without having a negative impact on cycling.”

“Yes, absolutely.”

“So any benefit for bikes has to be to the detriment of cars?”

“Yes. In fact, I would say we’re committing a crime against cycling when people continuously talk about promoting cycling without talking about deterring driving. Because that’s what’s actually happening. We’ve got a cycling promotion industry in the UK which refuses to contemplate the act of deterring driving. It’s always promoting cycling around the edges, not seeking to dismantle the central system of mobility in the UK, which is the car. It shouldn’t be called ‘Cycling England’, it should be called ‘Stop Driving England’, because that’s the only way you can get people cycling. For as long as you’re building roads, you’re supporting the car economy. You’re supporting people driving, and you’re not going to get them to change their transport habits. …..So we don’t need a bypass. What we need is £135 million spent on promoting walking and cycling in Lancaster, and we could have 50% of journeys in Lancaster and Morecambe by bike within a decade. It’s just so obvious.

“What more do you think should be done to overcome the obstacles to cycling?”

“It’s all about institutional change really. People, including policy-makers and decision-takers, still don’t get the pro-cycling argument. We need council officers and members who are sufficiently aware of the arguments that they can see the reasons why they should be aiming for the majority of urban journeys  to be made by bike. There’s something called climate change; there’s something called peak oil; there’s something called sustainability and quality of life. If people don’t understand the role that cycling has to play in tackling or helping with all those things, then somehow or other we need to get much, much better at convincing them. And until we do, we’re just going to be chipping away at the margins rather than mainstreaming cycling in a really fundamental sense.

And they’re the people who make the decisions. I mean, I can say to you what we need to do to get people onto bikes in Lancaster; we need to get rid of the central lane markings of the A6 between here (Lancaster University) and the city centre, reduce the carriageway width, push cars much closer together, put a 20 mph speed limit in and put really good, wide segregated cycling and walking routes on the edges. Tree-lined to make it really nice. So you don’t get the pollution because cars are going much more slowly, you don’t get the noise or violence of cars. It’s easy saying that, but what processes do we have to go through to get that implemented in Lancaster? We’re on the way, we’ve got twelve Green City Councillors, but we need thirty-five, because they all understand and will make it happen.  But in the meantime, we’ve got to persuade Tories and Labour to make those kinds of decisions, but they’re just not up to it.

“In terms of the image of cycling then, do you think it’s all still lycra and that kind of thing? And do you think this dissuades new cyclists? It’s not seen as something where you can just hop on a bike with your normal clothes on.”

“Yes, it’s not seen as ordinary is it? I mean, whether it dissuades people, I’m not sure. I’d have thought most people who watched Mark Cavendish win six stages of the Tour de France last year would be inspired to get on a bike. And we owe cycling enthusiasts a major favour, because they’ve kept cycling alive through some otherwise very dark years. But of course, the mantra is that we need to get ordinary people doing ordinary cycling. But yes, if you live in the Netherlands or Denmark you see people like you riding bikes all the time, so there’s no stigma or identity crisis involved with getting on a bike. Whereas clearly, for a lot of people in Britain today, the idea of themselves getting on a bike is just weird, and unlikely. So there are issues of image and identity which are really central to tackle but it’s not easy to shift an activity which has become sub-cultural in the UK back into mainstream culture. The Netherlands and Denmark has never quite had to do that because cycling never became so distinctly sub-cultural in those societies. But here, cycling is too easily represented as about being either a hippy, an environmental activist, a lycra-lout, a yob or a bike messenger; it’s not about being a normal person trying to do your best for the planet or your community.

“When I think about what it is to promote cycling, it’s actually about trying to achieve social change. A revolutionary social change. I want a society that is organised around cycling instead of around the car. But that’s not because I want cycling more than cars, that’s because I want a different kind of society. And creating a different kind of society is quite a tall order.”

2 Responses to “Cycling Demonstration Towns – an interview”

  1. Ashley, London Says:

    Spot on.

  2. Kim Says:

    Looks like cycling in the UK is on the road to nowhere 😦

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