Saturday 3 June 2017

Where Does Tiptoeing Get Us?

It's a scalable question I guess, but in applying it to streets for people I think it is something we should ask ourselves on a regular basis.

As we move into summer we see plenty of campaigns to "encourage" people to walk and cycle. We might have a week of action, a special day, a distance or step challenge - you know the sort of thing. This type of activity is part of what are otherwise known as "soft" measures. They don't cost a great deal to lay on, but nor do they address the structural issue with how our streets are designed, built and managed. 

I wonder why walking and cycling get this type of approach as we don't seem to have "bus to work week", "how many miles can you drive day" or "train on Tuesday". Walking has been taken for granted to a certain extent given that in urban areas at least, we have dense walking networks. Cycling has been forgotten for decades in all but a few places and so I guess people don't know where to start with getting it to be a normal and accepted travel mode. What works - encouragement or building the stuff which is proven to be effective the planet over?

What about the politically feeble concept of "balancing the needs of all road users"? I suppose the use of "road" is telling; those using the term generally mean "those driving on the roads" and the use of the word "balancing" means there is no intention to address the structural issue. If we were serious, then we would be using "rebalancing"; that is positively discriminating in favour of engineering measures which actually enable people to have a choice to travel actively. "Balancing" is tiptoeing around the real issues.

Then we get to those opinions which are carefully crafted for the benefit of local newspapers wittering about bad the congestion is in town, or why do "cyclists" always jump red lights or why to "pedestrians" always cross side road without looking (usually supported with an adversarial on-line poll). In their own way, the writers are tiptoeing around the real issues. But hey, the problems are caused by everyone else.

All of this stuff filters into the decisions made at various levels of government; on what our policies will be, where transport investment will be made and which modes of transport will be prioritised. Too often we have campaign groups celebrating paltry stop-start funding or professional institutions limply reacting to announcements lest they upset the consultants and contractors who do very nicely out of the status-quo. It's all tiptoeing around the issue. Keep it on the softly-softly because we don't want to upset people. As far as I can see, real change has come from people getting noisy and refusing to accept crumbs.

This tiptoeing approach has been used in the UK for as long as I have had an interest in active travel (and far longer than that); and it has not been particularly successful if one looks at mode share for walking and cycling over the years. We need to drop back onto the soles of our feet and start stamping. I don't mean that we should go out and be rude or abusive (as tempting as it is), but we need to be firm and consistent in our rebuttals. We should be using our firm rationality to make the arguments against active travel sound as deranged as they really are.

People talk about being in a post fact world, but that it essentially more weedy tiptoeing by people who find it easier to laugh off the baseless nonsense that some of our supposed movers and shakers trump out. We should articulately, firmly and consistently make the case for rebuilding our streets to prioritise active travel. We should not be worried about calling out bad policies or proposals. We should not be scared to confront the decision-makers and challenge their assumptions. We should stop tiptoeing around.


  1. I'm sympathetic to the basic thrust of your argument, but would point out that there ARE things that need to be done other than highway design. It's just that you don't get much of that from the type of thing you refer to.
    So, in my last job I managed to get funding (not enough) towards things that could be helpful. The list that should be referred to is: Home secure and convenient parking; assistance with getting bikes/accessories (locks, lights etc.) that are expensive for people on low incomes; assistance with maintenance; assistance with buying good wet/cold weather gear; proper confidence training (not what passes for most "cycle training" which seems to be an exercise in pushing lids and hi-viz; anti-theft programmes etc., etc. Throw in high quality policing and I think you have things which are going to be necessary whatever the highway layout is.
    The problem with the kind of "soft" measure you refer to is that it doesn't go anywhere near supporting these things that cyclists have IMO a right to.
    It would indeed NOT be tiptoeing because it would question how motorists get the kind of privileges they have - such as in effect subsidised parking - and demanding the rights of cyclists to have proper home parking if they want it.
    Dr Robert Davis, Chair RDRF

    1. Sage words as ever Robert - of course, those measures are really helpful, but will only be genuinely helpful if hand-in hand with decent road layouts; I guess my pop was more at softer-soft measures!

  2. Clark in Vancouver4 June 2017 at 23:09

    I totally agree. Timidity against a huge amount of inertia (along with money interests) will not lead to much.
    Since the problem is systemic, it's the system that needs to change.
    Nobody needs to be encouraged to cycle. That will come automatically when something attractive is built. Any controversy when that happens, however badly it's framed by the corporate media (who are part of the system) will inadvertently advertise it.

    It'll be tough going for awhile but worth it. More allies will be come out of the woodwork as they see what could be.

    1. I think the wider healthy streets movement has got to be the way to go as it will maximise our allies.

  3. It's a delicate balance as a Campaigner in my view. Yes we have to be critical. But too critical and those in power tune you out. Nothing they do is good enough. You have to bring those opposed or wary of cycling in, feed them praise where you can, but also be critical. It's an incredibly finely honed, tough job. I hope LCC does it well. I wish we had more active campaigners. More members. More clout. Slowly but surely I'll keep pushing.

    1. I think that as an organisation, LCC do things very well and I'm impressed with the push to gain allies (Living Streets for e.g.). Perhaps we need to distinguish the soft measures I have an issue with from Robert's (above) which I'd call complementary measures - as they rely on people being enabled too! Keep pushing!

    2. "Nothing they do is good enough."

      Kevin's comment:
      Isn't that the point of having standards? In my opinion, if the infra conforms to the Dutch CROW Design Manual for Bicycle Traffic, then it is good enough. If it violates the standard, then it isn't.