Sunday, 2 August 2020

Fossil Fuel Addicts, Shock Jocks, Plumbers & The Unhinged

It is often said that unless you're getting a backlash, you're not doing anything meaningful; and maybe this past week more than any other time this has been true for walking and cycling.

This week the government published three important things. First was the very long awaited update to the English cycling infrastructure design guidance - Local Transport Note 1/20, Cycle Infrastructure Design. This is a very important because in the absence of any other understanding of how to design for cycling, it's something which any local authority or consulting engineer can pick up and understand what is required. That on its own won't make for good design because you need competent people, but at the very least it sets out the minimum requirements stall which might mean that the first reaction is to get someone in who knows what they are doing.

There is nothing radical about LTN1/20 as such, but for the first time it brings UK design guidance up to date following legislative changes brought in with the Traffic Signs Regulations & General Direction 2016 (parallel zebra crossings, low level traffic signals etc) as well as current professional practice. I say UK, but this is aimed at England and Northern Ireland because Wales and Scotland have their own guidance.

The government also launched a consultation on some major revisions to the Highway Code which (if incorporated) will update the HC to again reflect the change in things we're allowed to design now. It is also proposing changes which would give (in theory) a little more help to walking and cycling such as advising drivers (and cyclists) that people crossing side streets (walking or cycling) should be left to complete the crossing before anyone turns in - in fact, someone looking like they want to cross (including at a zebra or parallel zebra crossing) should be afforded the same courtesy.

The HC will not make our streets safer per se because reasonable and courteous people will already behave properly and let's face it, the HC is only used by people on Twitter to argue points; but it shows a political direction of travel and the courts will use the HC as a part of testing how someone has behaved. Please take a look and respond to the consultation here.

The third thing published is far more radical and is the thing that has really wound up a few people and got a certain part of the media up in arms. Once you get past the stupid attempt at gaming Google searches by the PM referring to people not being able to get fridge-freezers on cargobikes (which is nonsense), Gear Change: a bold vision for cycling and walking actually is a genuinely bold vision. The document is full of facts about how pursuing policies based around walking and cycling can improve health, social and economic outcomes for people and where they live. This is probably my favourite graphic from the document because it's about design;

It's also a great explanation of why some people are losing the plot over plans to change how streets are managed and how people are prioritised. We've had radio shock-jocks ranting about lycra-clad cyclists, fossil fuel industry sock-puppets going on about needing to share the roads and the owner of a London-based plumbing company rationally describing people who want to cycle as fascists. Of course, such nonsense inevitably stokes up hatred from other people which at worst means people die on the streets.

The Vision also comes at a time where as part of their responses to Covid, some local authorities are trying to create safer walking and cycling space in our communities. In some cases, this has led to noisy protests and in at least two things I have read, people suggesting the schemes are like genocide to local businesses. We've also heard from motoring groups who also talk about balance and sharing and freight transport organisations which can see a challenge to their current business model which relies on the community to absorb the externalised costs of their operations.

Maybe you think I am not being forgiving in lumping the obvious loons in with the more respectable organisations, but for me, it's a spectrum and a little bit of digging shows that the main difference between these people and organisations is language rather than intent. We've followed their model for decades and look where it's got us.

There is plenty of dissonance with government of course, with the £27bn plan to expand the English strategic road network (although some of this cost is for maintenance) and a planning system which is still leading to car-centric development. It is possible to dislike a government, but welcome a particular policy however.

But, the counter to this is that we are starting to hear new voices above the screaming insults and crocodile smiles. Hyper local action groups are being formed to amplify the silent majority who would actually love to see different streets. Electronic citizen spaces, social media and people on the ground are starting to push back. The Bike Is Best campaign has undertaken some research which suggests that for every person against local measures to enable cycling are supported by 6.5 people.

This may be a surprise to many given what we see in the media and what many politicians say, but when we have political lobbying by fuel, motoring and haulage interests as well as people in the media who use outgrouping to create outrage for "debate" shows and for website clicks, it's clear that some see people being able to travel under their own steam as a threat, whether financially or politically.

Of course, a week is a long time in politics, but for the first time in a decade of being into active travel design, I'm cautiously hopeful.


  1. Excellent blog, thank you Mark.
    It's a shame that there's so much vociferous clutching of pearls from the motorised road users you've mentioned.
    "Gear change..." looks really promising. I also thought the graphic you've displayed was really powerful, in particular that cyclists should design cycle schemes.
    I recently got my bike working again after a ten year break due to the unforgiving nature of the traffic and lack of provision of cycling infrastructure. My local authority successfully bid for ~£570K from phase one of the Emergency Active Travel Fund, and I hope that the money from this and the Gear Change document will make a massive difference so I can go out on my bicycle and actually feel safe.
    Cheers for your blog, Sarah

  2. A good characterisation of the backlash. Backlashes are normal, inevitable, and mostly based on protecting privilege, exaggerating costs and losses, and underrating (social) benefits.

    At least now we have clear backing from (at least part of) the Department of Transport to change design priorities and details. Active Travel England should also give teeth to the policies through being able to award or recall funding, depending on scheme compliance, and being a statutory consultee in the planning system.

    A couple of additional useful references from Sustrans:

    Bike Life 2019 report on public attitudes:

    Media portrayal of active travel: