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.