Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Eyetest: Collaboration beyond a 20/20 vision

A tweet by Kaya Burgess, cycle campaigner, made me think. Here's what Kaya said when asked if he would have got involved in cycle campaigning without of a colleague getting hurt.

As for myself? Exactly that too. Me, regular cycle commuter. Me, back in 2010: "CTC? You mean C2C right? What's CTC?" Talking about the C2C, part of the NCN. My relationship with Sustrans back then? "Yea, they are good, they campaign for cycling provision and better streets." I even used to give them my money to speak on my behalf. I was somewhat cheated in my thoughts and expectations I later found out.

Yes. I wish all of us could speak with one voice.

But for that to happen we would have to do something quite un-British... we'd have to bang our heads together and bash it out. Openly (online), honestly, transparently. We? The cycling organisations that make up the hilly lobbying landscape.

Key players are (in case you, like Kaya, like me, did not know): Sustrans, CTC and their CycleNation branch (not really sure about the relationship between those two), Cycling Embassy of Great Britain and local campaigns - most notably the London Cycling Campaign but also Spokes (Edinburgh) and Cambridge. No to forget that there are new and different types of campaigns springing up such as Pedal on Parliament, Space4Cycling. Cycle campaigning. It truly is a moving feast.

In 2010 and new to cycle campaigning (and campaigning in general I do not hasten to add) and just after having attended a CTC/CycleNation bash in Edinburgh, I contacted CTC policy and campaign's department to inquire about
1) how they'd wish to work together with the recently formed Newcastle Cycling Campaign
2) more generally, how they collaborate with other local campaigns groups

Then there was a kind of stunned silence. I thought this was odd. I neither got much joy from CycleNation. Foggy vision, direction and planning. Something felt a little bit stuck and rusty.

So what do these national campaigns do? Sustrans is busy talking people onto their bikes (Bike It etc). Laudable but I have it on reasonable authority that they do come up against the inevitable "but the roads aren't save enough" more often than not. And they then struggle, as their hand are bound. They cannot turn against their government paymasters to effect changes to our often hostile roads. And CTC are onto tackling road justice and the legal system (previously Stop Smidsy). Laudable aims. Laudable. Both, in a moment of madness or blindness, supported the not-so-nicewaycode. There are other groups. Some groups pick up strict(er) liability or speed reduction. CycleNation asked local groups to tackle contraflow cycling.

Laudable. Very laudable.

All laudable. But the major part of the jigsaw is still missing.

Why are people not cycling? I do talk to people. And they tell me the answer, day in day out - the road conditions are too hostile and there are no cycleways for you to keep a safe distance to that hostility and aggression.

And so the really big thing is left untouched by the big national campaign groups. Infrastructure. Re-arranging our cities and towns. Downsizing the scale to suit human use. This is what is largely left unaddressed by Sustrans and CTC. Looking at design codes - here and abroad. Why are these codes guidelines not standards in the UK? Identifying the gaps in the codes and procedures. What we have versus what we need. What changes are required. What is it that DfT will have to do and lobbying DfT for these changes. What engineers of the future should look like. Assessing universities' courses... and... breathe...

These kind of debates happen, since 2011 and almost exclusively at that, at the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain (and that's why I joined them). And not to forget, although local, the London Cycling Campaign's 'Go Dutch' Mayors election initiative has carried on the flame of that vital debate too. How to create conditions that everyone can cycle? What does the provision look like?

But it's not Sustrans in the lead in this debate. Not CTC. As cycle campaigners, where are our priorities, inter-dependencies, pressures, limitations, conflicts of interest with wider parties? I fell that Sustrans and CTC will have to relinquish some seats on some tables and let the new folks in.

We gotta get this out there, and we got to get this sorted. Have Sustrans and CTC become establishment? Furniture in the creaky corridors of the DfT ? Part of the window dressing for councils? Gathering dust? I don't care if they had. If so, I just want  Sustrans and CTC to say it. Say why they aren't more intricately involved in cycle infrastructure design debate on a national level.

Therefore addressing the public's concerns. And breaking out.

Space for cycling


  1. Sustrans is a strange beast and I state that as a volunteer ranger keeping an eye on a section of the NCN and helping at events with "promotion".

    They started years ago as a civil engineering charity with a big aim to create and improve cycling routes and infrastructure and I get the impression they were quite collaborative from the start.

    They developed the NCN design guide which was pretty good in its day, but it has been massively superseded over the years.

    They do have a track record of getting people together to reach a common aim to improve cycling (and walking) routes and certainly the most recent project (Connect 2) has built a heck of a lot of stuff - bridges included - the scheme I was involved with create a new route over a trunk road (via an existing road bridge)and they helped knock some official heads together and helped convinced politicians that they could narrow the bit for traffic to create a cycle track (shared-use I admit, but not bad at all).

    I am not sure I agree with how far they have gone getting involved in air quality and some of the other projects as it is getting too far from building stuff, but I am not a trustee, so it is not my say - they don't have membership as such as a campaign group would have.

    Yes, they are establishment and need to work with the funders to get the funding, but they do push to get what they want.

    Then look at the London Cycling Campaign of which I am a member (and have just cast a vote for trustees). They are a different beast and seem to be getting noisy and effective in policy getting changed and asking why can't it be done that way.

    I think there is space for the do-ers and shouters alike, but of course lots of interests can dilute things. Perhaps we do need a UK cycling campaign, but it means lots of local interests behaving. Of the LCC, there is a perception that it is all about the Islingtons and Camdens with the outer boroughs being left out, but it is changing.

    Bit of a ramble with no real point I guess!

  2. I think we need to draw a big distinction between charities and campaigns and real old dying groups. In my opinion real change will happen when people stop fannying about with campaigns and hand wringing and start getting into the more murky world of lobbying. Proper actual political pressure.

  3. Maybe take a leaf from the Occupy book - no leaders, just a shared vision and direct action.

  4. I think good ole Ranty hit it on the head with "I think there is space for the do-ers and shouters alike".

    There is a need for some groups to get down into the hard work of lobbying, discussing, planning, getting money, and building. There's also a need for this activity to be held to account, for some to shout and scream about the needs against what is being delivered.

    It's the checks and balances method of delivering what is needed and not necessarily implying that those delivering aren't doing a good job, it just needs a consumers voice (ugh, someone please give a better phrase!).

    The relationship between these two groups can be good, although I'd always expect those holding the delivery to account to call for the next step. That way you get progress.

  5. As far as campaigning or advocacy is concerned, I remember being incensed by an article by James Martin in 2009 talking about running people cycling off the roads in a quiet electric car.

    I joined and then ran a Facebook group co-ordinating the pressure on the BBC and the Mail to reprimand him to varying degrees. The Mail dropped the paragraph pretty quick. The BBC just hung on. Their usual response to criticism, stay quiet and hope it goes away. It did but only after the story hit the top 3 read on their site!

    I would be a natural fit for Sustrans. It's my kind of activism, being on the bike and enjoying riding whilst doing it. Or looking at maps and working out what could be done. I even started making overtures to local organisers.

    But then NiceWayCode came along. I now won't touch Sustrans with a barge-pole. My Sustrans teeshirts have gone to the bottom of the wardrobe.

  6. I can speak about this from a similar experience in my job I work for a charity which unlike bigger players with vested interests, funded by government contracts and the like, is completely funded by donors and legacies. This gives us a definite independent stance which allows us to tread in areas that other more unwieldy charities cannot for fear of upsetting partners or funders.

    I think the same thing goes for cycle campaigning. The established organisations are already at the table, have made the links, have been commissioned to carry out work, and so they stagnate and solidify for fear of losing what limited influence they have.

    The problem is, that without a huge change, external 'loose cannon' campaigning will always look like a threat, and a very viable one as taking strong positions allows small campaigning organisations to punch well above their weight.

    Stay independent and you stay relevant and focused. Go large and you become domesticated.

  7. CTC, and possibly sustrans, do have input on allocations of central government money to local cycle schemes. In the case of Cambridge this resulted in assenting to a junction design to which the local campaign objected. They're just not on the same page.

    So what's the solution? Most effective is probably joining such organisations and making the case from within, and getting other like-minded people to join. But that's a hard things to do, especially if there are other organisations which already represent your views. However this means the cycling community risks fragmentation, with each org having less influence and risking contradicting each other. This can only benefit the government, as you allude. They can cherry-pick who they include, who they speak to, and end up with approval for weak schemes while looking like they are being inclusive.

    I had heard of the Cycling Embassy but hadn't taken a close look at them before. Looks like a good organisation and one to which it would be useful to have links. Although I already belong to 3 cycling orgs, and will probably have to draw the line at some point...

  8. This is an excellent post. I consider myself one of radwagon's shouters and in this respect I find the readiness of some of the commenters to work within the traditional Brit structures quite depressing . With 2% national modal share, that whole project has failed. Until the whole attitude of those with the purse strings changes the UK are never going to get the same kind of national consensus that cycling is a worthwhile thing to do and to promote (for all the usual reasons), and the UK will never achieve the same level of cycling uptake as N Europe, or, I dare say, places like Seville.

    What originally got me started was Mike Penning's comment that the Netherlands had much to learn about road safety from the UK. As long as this kind of ignorant attitude persists in government, local or central, it doesn't really matter whether Sustrans or CTC are establishment, shirking their responsibilities etc or not. Recent pathetic suggestions for cycling infrastructure designs and boilerplate statements from DfT ministers, do not give me any confidence that the step change necessary is anywhere near. Change needs to come in government, not these organisations. They could help, though, by rejecting many more useless projects instead of "welcoming" anything that moves, and which, despite the new wave of campaigners such as NCC and CEoGB, keep coming with monotonously dispiriting regularity. Those in authority could listen more to the new wave too. But that seems far off. So for the time being, on with the shouting.

  9. I hope we all can insist that governments create 'space for cycling'.

    That phrase is growing in popularity because it is simple to remember and general enough that local groups, businesses and campaigners can define the specifics of what it means for their local area, while still linking in to a national theme.

    Local elections are in May 2014, and by then every local councillor should have at least heard the phrase! Campaigners can work on obtaining specific pledges from candidates to create space for cycling in their local area.

    Here's a hub that is acting as a starting point...

    The strap line is 'space not conflict'.

  10. Confusing. Yet there's more...

    And you'll notice in that diagram there's no British Cycling. And obviously, no CEoGB.

    It's absolutely the last thing you want when above all else you need a focussed team working towards a clear goal. You'd need to be one hell of a leader to hold that lot together and succeed!

    All the groups have come about because of a need, so they're all valid in some way, and it really ought to raise alarm bells that so many people recently felt the need for yet another new group to represent them, the CEoGB. If there was a leader orchestrating this he or she would be pretty worried about that. I think we can probably safely assume there isn't one. A leader I mean, which is more than a bit of a worry in itself.

    My experience of campaigning as part of the CTC was pretty lonely locally. CTC's campaigners are fairly thinly spread and rarely get much if any support from the far larger group of CTC's active members who are more interested in riding their bikes of a weekend. That disparity was brought to my attention last week in fact. If you've got a local CTC group the likelyhood is that they'll be trying to ride away from their base in the towns and cities to somewhere quieter and prettier. The last thing they do is spend much time riding around in the immediate vicinity, and consequently tend to have little interest in it. That might explain quite a lot!

    Which brings us back to that question, who and what are all of us campaigners campaigning for? Quite a lot it turns out, when you add it all up. Just CTC's demands run to pages and pages of briefing sheets. Wouldn't it be great if you could condense all that down to one phrase rather one page? Something that makes that leap beyond current cyclists to the imaginations of those not yet riding bikes? I wonder what it could be?

    Oh look. Somebody's got it already. It's in the comment above this one. What's stopping the UK Cycling Alliance using it do you think? Copyright? Or something else?

    We've got 'Get Britain Cycling' though, which somebody else pointed out to me really ought to be Get England Cycling since it's a Westminster based initiative. Has that connected with non-cyclists? That's something a leader, if there were one, would be pretty keen to find out I think. Question, learn and improve.

    Perhaps I'm missing something and GBC isn't that kind of campaign. And we're back where we came in. Confusing.

    I'll crawl back into my bed now...

  11. Not had time to comment on this as quickly as I would have liked :-( but it still seems to be active so here's my uncoordinated rant.

    Firstly, my view is that cycling in UK needs some kind of national umbrella group or banner.

    I would want to see this group actively supported and funded by all the main organisations (Sustrans, CTC, British Cycling, Bicycle Association, Living Streets etc) and set out a clear concise set of recommendations (#getbritaincycling seems to have done a pretty good job here).

    The national umbrella org should also coordinate the campaign to achieve them and report on progress. Employing Chris Boardman or Chris Hoy ( or both ) as a cycling champion & media figurehead in this non-governmental champion/auditor role may be a good move.

    This national campaign also needs to be able to leverage local grass roots support, and use the likes of the sustrans etc people on the ground work to coordinate, encourage and improve the work by LAs.

    A lot of LAs (including mine) seem to have no overall vision or plan (and some odd ideas), and there is not always the active people on the ground able to launch effective local cycling campaigns. LAs don't always listen to campaign groups anyway, but do seem to take note and use the likes of sustrans to help develop their networks. I suspect the reason for that is money (as ever).

    The main issue with Sustrans though is that their design book seems to be 20 years out of date (a lot of that may be be legislation limiting what they can build).

    I would love to start a local group, but really do not have the time to be able to take on the challenge. Being a bit shouty on Twitter and blogs is about all I can manage. I would love to be able to channel that more effectively though. I suspect there are a lot of people in a lot of areas in similar positions.

    I think we need to stop kicking the likes of Sustrans & CTC for the nicewaycode farce and move on. I suspect they were duped by the initial outline which probably sounded reasonable enough, and were probably as horrified as the rest of us when they saw the result. It would have been good to hear some condemnation from them though.

  12. Whilst the forgive and move on argument is a fair one, these organisations are going to spend our money. How many of us trust them to use it wisely? Even more worrying, who are they accountable to?

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