by Our Bicycle Lives
Providing safe and direct cycle routes to encourage people to use bikes instead of cars: sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Then you happen to mention campaigning and a stereotype will stick to you, that of the seasoned cyclist who bores others stiff with filtered permeability or segregated cycle lanes. Campaigning has an image problem: it sounds martial and military, too black and white for the fashionable shades of grey which give our era its appeal. So much so that even the London Cycling Campaign considered dropping it from its name last year. Too off-putting. ‘Cycling promotion’ is not much better, forceful and at odds with these laid-back times, as if cycling was a chore that needed promoting rather than a highly enjoyable activity.
But, as film-maker François Ozon once replied when he was asked whether his film was political, ‘everything is political’. Way beyond party politics, choosing where to shop, or how public funds are spent, or how streets are designed prioritises some groups and excludes others, and shapes the future of the city we live in. Whether we like it or not, people who cycle are in the minority, and, as such, we sound shrill and defensive on occasion and we need to shout to get our voices heard (we have a lot to say!). Plus, we feel that society owes us because our taxes subsidise primarily other modes of transport*. All this doesn’t come across too well. One writer spoke of converts being zealots. More perceptively, in the April/May issue of London Cyclist the ever ebullient Zoe Williams differentiated between people who cycle and cyclists ‘who demand to be recognised, not just as people on two wheels, but as people on two wheels doing a decent thing. (…) People who cycle need cyclists.’
As I wrote here, I am a quiet campaigner: it is not in my nature to be vocal and try to change opinions and people. My main contribution is by example, in the hope that by being respectful of other road users, fellow cyclists will in return be treated with consideration. Antisocial cycling is so counterproductive in the long run, and we are in it for the long run, aren’t we? But we do need people who make a lot of noise: demonstrations and making headlines are very effective so I am happy to join protest rides, fill in surveys or put my name on petitions. It feels great to do something right and to shout about it! A few Christmases ago, I stumbled upon my local London Cycling Campaign group and was amazed at the extent of their knowledge of the local area, whereas I struggle to recollect whether a road I use every day is one or two-ways. I remember one afternoon spent riding an advertising tricycle across London to the head office: it was good fun, and I did get a lot of attention! Everywhere the volunteers’ dedication is impressive, their tireless involvement in the nitty gritty of campaigning – emails, letters to MPs, meetings, that unglamorous hard slog which aims to propel cycling into the mainstream. And, with new, dynamic campaigning organisations such as the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, there is much good will about.
But will it find a way? Is the general public ready to listen? To borrow my friend Beth’s words, ‘to be a good listener, you have to be prepared to be changed by it.’ How do we ensure that all that work doesn’t fall on deaf ears, that we don’t preach to the converted and antagonise the lukewarm and the indifferent? ‘Cyclists must capture the public’s imagination in order to gain the breadth of support needed’ wrote the Guardian Bike Blog. Protest rides and social media all help to put cycling on the agenda. And as the status of the bicycle rises, campaigning could one day (one hopes) become less of a vital matter. ‘Put Cyclists First’ was one of Metro’s recent headlines. But why just cyclists? Put people first! Let’s be bold, let’s look at the bigger picture and come up with a vision of what we would like our future environment to be. Cycle activist Mark Ames is one of the voices behind the Movement For Liveable London. In an inspirational Street Talk, he called for a broad alliance of young and older people, pedestrians, parents, cyclists and others to lobby for more liveable cities. We need to work towards bringing about the changes we aspire to, together.
* For example, motoring costs two to three times more to society than the taxes it brings in.