Playing Baseball with Aunt Sally

I was prompted to write this piece based on a post by Carlton Reid on his Quickrelease blog, in which the a comparison is attempted between building infrastructure for bicycles as a means of increasing their use and building baseball stadiums as a means of increasing the popularity of baseball in the UK. As an analogy, it doesn’t really work (and I know I’ve strained a few myself on this blog in the past) but it is at least an interesting revisiting of a straw man with whom Carlton has been arguing with on and off for a few years now.

The straw man I refer to is as follows; that of the cycle campaigners advocating replication of The Netherlands’ approach to cycle infrastructure here in the UK, a significant proportion believe that implementing a botched half-measures as seen in Milton Keynes or Stevenage is enough to produce cycling rates in the UK which are comparable to those in The Netherlands. No-one is saying that quality cycle infrastructure is the entire solution to the unpopularity of cycling as a mode of transport in the UK, it is just most of the solution, difficult, an entirely essential component of the solution and the most obviously visible part of the changes required.  It makes sense that people are talking-up infrastructure; it is a very visible part of the changes we need, it is easy to communicate and it is the very foundation of making cycling a viable mode of transport for normal people. Talking down infrastructure, however, helps none of us, and is a particularly odd thing to do if you have previously made the case for the need for cyclists to present a united front to decision makers.

Carlton beats his straw man over the head with examples such as Milton Keynes or Stevenage, neither of which come close to representing what cycle campaigners advocating replication of The Netherlands’ approach to cycle infrastructure here in the UK are proposing. Whilst the treatment of main roads in these places may superficially resemble approaches used in The Netherlands, without the corresponding changes to other classes of road, such as residential streets, and the requisite inconveniencing of short-hop car trips arising from this infrastructure, attempting to use these places to argue that The Netherlands approach to cycle infrastructure would not work in the UK due to unspecified cultural difficulties is dishonest.

Instead, the importance of the built environment on the modes of travel people choose is downplayed, with unspecified cultural reasons suggested to be the real issue. As most of you will know, using the bicycle as a means of transport in most parts of the UK is not a normal thing to do. Using a means of transport which differs from the dominant means of transport; the car, on infrastructure designed entirely around the car, and amongst car users who have little understanding of cycling or cyclists can often make the act of cycling for transport into something of an ordeal. When facing this situation day in, day out, it can be very, very tempting to see the decision of others to drive rather than cycle as a personal failure, or a result of culture, rather than as a result of the environment. “If I can cycle in this, so can they,” you think to yourself, after a close overtake or a multi-lane roundabout, “if only they weren’t so lazy, or stupid, or addicted to their cars.” I find myself thinking along these lines sometimes, after a particularly gruelling ride to work. But really they’re just ordinary people, people who haven’t given much thought to why they chose the mode of transport they have. The cultural argument for why cycling has failed in the UK is so alluring because it allows us to feel morally superior to those who drive. Accepting that those who currently drive in the UK are the same as those who currently cycle in The Netherlands is hard because it means committing to changing the road environment here to more closely resemble that over there, which is a big job. It also means losing the thing which makes us special; being a cyclist, despite the environment, in a place where cycling is marginalised.

Carlton, it’s time to put this old straw man out to pasture.

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16 thoughts on “Playing Baseball with Aunt Sally

  1. The cultural argument for why cycling has failed in the UK is so alluring because it allows us to feel morally superior to those who drive. Accepting that those who currently drive in the UK are the same as those who currently cycle in The Netherlands is hard because it means committing to changing the road environment here to more closely resemble, that over there, which is a big job. It also means losing the thing which makes us special;

    Yes. And you’ve said it so now I don’t have to!

  2. It is not a straw man.

    For 50 years our planners have bought into the “build it and they will come” segregationist hypothesis. Ever since Stevenage, every new settlement in the country has been built around a segregated cycle network. And it is not just Stevenage and MK – though those are probably the most comprehensive examples, but we have a whole premier leagues worth of “baseball stadia” that have been unremitting failures in terms of encouraging cycling. Indeed they have tended to be the most car dependent towns in the country. They built it and they didn’t come … to Stevenage, to Milton Keynes, to Harlow, to Bracknell, to Hatfield, to Telford, to Livingston, to Warrington … the list goes on.

    And it really doesn’t wash claiming that this somehow doesn’t count because these were “botched”. They may not quite be up to the standard of the best examples from the NL (although in the ’70s the Dutch took our new-town planning guidelines as their model), but they certainly meet the central requirement that the segregationists claim is stopping people cycling
    ie people in these towns do not need to mix with busy traffic. Indeed, if you interview a sample of the non-cycling population of MK as to what makes it a good place to live they will bring up the “ideal” cycle path network. It is there, they know it is there, they even think it is good, yet they are still wedded to their cars. If building cycle paths was even part of the solution to encouraging cycling then these places would stand out as the cycling centres of the UK, rather than our most car-dependent towns.

    • “For 50 years our planners have bought into the ‘build it and they will come’ segregationist hypothesis. Ever since Stevenage, every new settlement in the country has been built around a segregated cycle network.”

      You are almost right there, except for one detail; these new settlements have been built around a first-class, high-capacity car network, with a decidedly second-class (albeit sometimes better than the usual UK standard) cycle network mostly present too. In that respect, these places are proof of the “build it and they will come” hypothesis, they built infrastructure which made driving attractive, convenient and safe. The people used it in droves.

      Thanks for making my point for me.

      • In terms of the current debate, it really doesn’t matter what your explanation for the failure of the most comprehensive cycle track networks to attract any additional cycling whatsoever (indeed cycling tends to depressed in these places). The fact remains that the “BIATWC” hypothesis is simply demonstrated to be wrong. While it was a plausible hypothesis 50 years ago when they were planning Stevenage, now we have seen the results it incredible that people are still arguing the case.

        You have hit the nail on the head when you point out that it is the constraint on motor vehicles (or lack of it) that is the key to getting folk cycling and that building cycle paths (or not) is entirely irrelevent. This is why mainstream cyclists organisations have been making all along and why limiting traffic volumes and speeds (as they do in NL) are at the top of the hierarchy of measures and cycle specific infrastructure as a last resort.

        It is notable that those places in the UK that do have some success at encouraging cycling are those that follow this approach and have reputations as anti-car towns. Hull – with the early take up of widespread traffic calming (though they are now slipping), Oxford – which actively discourages through traffic, Central London – with the congestion charge – and particularly Hackney (the only traffic authority in the country where more people cycle to work than drive) where they explicitly reject the segregationist approach much to the ire of the BIATWC advocates. Other places that have high modal shares for cycling (Cambridge, York and the like), while not following explicitly anti-car policies have tended to be towns where conservation concerns have prevented them building the car infrastructure that blights most of our towns.

        Now, the BIATWC hypothesis does not depend in any way on constraining cars – advocates usually go to great lengths to deny that they are anti car. Their position depends entirely on the presumption that the roads are clogged up by cars driven reluctantly by “cyclists” who are too frightened to share the roads with cars. Indeed many go to the extent of demonizing people who actually ride bikes as a small hardened minority, while they claim tat the vast majority of genuine cyclists drive cars everywhere. While it is true that many drivers will claim they would cycle “if only there was a cycle path” (so much more respectable than “I’m too bone idle”), that is shown not to be the case by the fact that they still drive everywhere in the new towns where cycle paths are available.

        And it really does their argument no credit to deny the existence of those comprehensive cycle path networks. Try using cycle streets to plan a route in Milton Keynes:

        http://www.cyclestreets.net/journey/33155310/

        You really can get directly from anywhere to anywhere else in the town without encountering a remotely busy road. And whatever concerns yo might have about the quality it does fully meet the only criterion that the BIATWC advocates insist is important – segregation from motor traffic.

        • “You really can get directly from anywhere to anywhere else in the town without encountering a remotely busy road.”

          Yeah, but, on the downside, then I’d have to live in Milton Keynes!

          I am not convinced that the ‘anti-car’ position and the ‘pro-infrastructure’ position are really that far apart. For example, reducing the use of roads as through-routes by, say, bollarding them off at one end, is surely something entirely compatible with both positions?

          The fact is we _have_ a cycle network already, but the problem is its full of cars. Both an infrastructure-building stance and a car-use-reduction stance run into the problem of the huge political power of the car-lobby, and the fact we are trapped in a situation where people feel obliged to drive – and once they become drivers that becomes the only thing they can imagine and they become part of that lobby.

          I’ve said elsewhere that driving culture is like a zombie apocalypse – the more people become ‘turned’ the harder it is for the survivors to avoid the infection, its self perpetuating. I view “28 days later” as a metaphor for the UK’s transport culture!

          I’m not convinced by your citing the congestion charge as an example of a car-reduction measure however. Firstly because (and this was a disappointment to me) the effect in reducing traffic has not actually been that great, and secondly because its clear from the failure of plans to expand the zone that the political forces opposing such measures are extremely powerful.

    • As Mr C has already said.

      I am not familiar personally with Stevenage but I do know MK, Hatfield and Bracknell, and while there are cycle networks, the roads network is so comprehensive and high-capacity that it was simply too tempting to use the car, especially once the vast majority of its cost, ie the capital and standing charges, have lready been incurred.

      In countries which really “get” bikes, measures to encourage cucling go hand in hand with measures to control and to some extent discourage driving wherever cycling or public transport are freely available choices. This is not something which has so far ever happened here.

    • Well, I’m not familiar with a number of the examples you quote, but I *am* familiar with Warrington. There’s a good reason Warrington Cycling Campaign is the home of the shit infrastructure pictures – because Warrington is full of it.

      To suggest that Warrington is providing the type of complete, comprehensive infrastructure that the Embassy is asking for frankly beggars belief.

      While they have lots of nice bits, they do the same as we’ve been doing for 50 years – not making the routes complete, and bodging them at important points like road junctions.

      They’re largely a failure, but they’re *less* of a failure than the bizarre idea that we’re not making driving unpleasant enough, because that’s all Milton Keynes needs to be a cycling paradise.

  3. Driving is not unduly difficult or unpleasant in the Netherlands. It could be argued that in most places it is more pleasant than it is in the UK, because of the lower density of cars on the roads.

    The difference in cycling rates comes down to the wholly different quality of the cycling infrastructure in terms of all these factors: usability, safety, scale, convenience, comprehensiveness, comprehensibility, connectedness, speed and smoothness of use. A few days cycling in the Netherlands, either on a study tour or independently, is enough to demonstrate that to any British cyclist.

    Attempts to claim that the cycling infrastructure in Milton Keynes, Stevenage, Peterborough, Cambridge, Warrington, Bracknell (Bracknell, for God’s sake??) is in any way, shape or form comparable to that in the Netherlands, or even to that in Danish, Swedish, Finnish or many German cities, are so far off-beam they can only possibly be founded on ignorance and lack of practical experience of proper cycle infrastructure, planning and networks.

    Another important factor is that where even the better UK networks exist, in some of the above cases, they are isolated in their own towns. They do not connect up across the country, or even to outlying settlements locally, in the way the networks in the Netherlands and Denmark certainly do. Thus cycling can never be relied upon as a mode of transport, even locally, anywhere, unless you are happy to cycle on busy and fast roads, which most people are not.

    I don’t believe the claim that the Dutch took British planning guidelines as their model in the 1970s in any meaningful way. What’s the evidence for this? There may have been one or two references to the Buchanan report and one or two visits to Milton Keynes in the course of normal exchanges, but that’s all. It seems very clear the Dutch went on a very individual path in cycle and traffic planning from the 1970s onwards, very distinct from the British.

    There is a reason that we have such a rich crop of “crap cycle lane” photos from the UK. These come from new towns and old towns, urban areas and rural areas. You will not find a comparable collection from any other European country. You can draw the conclusions.

  4. I agree with most of this.

    In particular I think the (introspection-based?) comment about the psychological appeal of infrastructure-rejectionism is correct. I feel it in myself. Even while I agree with the demand for Dutch-style infrastructure, a (slightly shameful) part of me still gets some sense of accomplishment out of regularly doing battle with white-van-man and four-by-four-woman.

    I mean, I found myself watching bits of the Olympics and thinking “call that cycling? Where are the giant potholes, the road-cushions, and choke-points? If they really want to prove themselves they need a furious, red-faced man in a white van chasing them round that velodrome while screaming the c-word at them…plus trucks doing punishment passes at 60mph, taxis trying their damnedest to left-hook them, and phone-gazing, ipod-wearing pedestrians randomly stepping into their paths – then maybe they’d be earning those medals! These guys are lightweights!”*

    (No prizes for guessing I’m male)

    I nonetheless, don’t see how you can entirely rule out the possibility that there may indeed be a cultural aspect to car-dominance in the UK. Of course the cultural and the practical constantly reinforce each other, which is what makes change so tough. But the two changed together to get us here, so I suppose one can hope they can be changed together back.

    *Infrastructure arguments aside, they do need to make this an official event

  5. Pingback: Just how good is the cycling infrastructure in Bracknell? | As Easy As Riding A Bike

  6. If BIATWC doesn’t work our motorways and (here) Autobahns would be empty, when one bypass was built around a town there would never be any need for any more, and there would be no discussion of new toll motorways because the existing network would contain the traffic. And there would still be lots of cyclists on the roads because hardly anyone would have switched to cars.

    In Germany cycle provision is in the hands of local authorities and some are better than others. Where they take cycling a bit more seriously and have infrastructure, (Locally that would be Tübingen, Freiburg or Esslingen am Neckar,) there are lots more cyclists. In places like the one I live provision, is relatively poor quality and incomplete, (although still better than most of the UK) we have comparatively few.

    Funny that…

  7. The cultural argument for why cycling has failed in the UK is so alluring because it allows us to feel morally superior to those who drive. In Germany cycle provision is in the hands of local authorities and some are better than others.

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