Friday 10 February 2012

The Times' Eight Point Manifesto

By now I would think that many of my readers will be familiar to some extent with The Times' "Cities fit for cycling" campaign.

I was included in a mailshot and asked to pledge support for The Times' campaign two days before it started. I was not told what I would be supporting, and a flurry of emails revealed anomalies about what might be part of their campaign, so I decided to wish them luck, hope for the best, but not to pledge support to something which I could not be sure about.

In itself, seeing a major newspaper come out in support of cyclists is positive. This came about as a result of one of their colleagues being seriously injured, and I'm sure that everyone involved is quite earnest about wanting change. Also, it's really a good thing to see some of the issues that face British cyclists getting an airing in the national press. Over the last week The Times has published a lot of stories about cycling and I've read most of the articles. Unsurprisingly, some are better than others. Overall there are a lot more articles consisting of emotional appeal than actual details of what is wrong and what needs to be done. I think it's time for a response.

The manifesto
Central to the campaign is an 8 point manifesto. Unfortunately, this provides rather a weak basis for everything else:
  • Lorries entering a city centre should be required by law to fit sensors, audible turning alarms, extra mirrors and safety bars to stop cyclists being thrown under the wheels.

    More noise on the streets ? More complexity ? None of this is needed if conflict is designed out of the streets.
  • The 500 most dangerous road junctions must be identified, redesigned or fitted with priority traffic lights for cyclists and Trixi mirrors that allow lorry drivers to see cyclists on their near-side.

    This initially sounds good, but why only 500 junctions out of thousands ? Also, this suggests that the rather inadequate "solutions" of installing extra traffic lights or Trixi mirrors on existing junction designs are enough even for the 500 most dangerous junctions.

    For British people to cyclists need properly designed streets and junctions, not small measures like advanced stop lines they get a few seconds extra green time on the same roads in order to try to outrun cars. The Times has also got behind the idea of allowing cyclists to turn left on a red light, an idea which they credit to Paris but which has actually been allowed for a long time in many places in the Netherlands. In this country it is not a blanket permission but applies only where infrastructure removes conflict and makes it safe.
  • A national audit of cycling to find out how many people cycle in Britain and how cyclists are killed or injured should be held to underpin effective cycle safety.

    I can't argue with the need to have accurate measurements, but why do they not already exist ?
  • Two per cent of the Highways Agency budget should be earmarked for next generation cycle routes, providing £100 million a year towards world-class cycling infrastructure. Each year cities should be graded on the quality of cycling provision.

    £100 million is an impressive sounding number, but actually it isn't nearly enough. This is just £1.94, or €2.30, per person per year. By comparison, the Netherlands already spends €30 per person per year. The Times' proposal calls for nowhere near enough money to achieve "world-class cycling infrastructure". England will continue to fall behind with this level of expenditure.

    Any grading that results should be a way of making sure that improvements are real, not a way for cities to hype themselves. There is already far too much hype, with competing "cycling cities" exaggerating their claims. While not completely free of hype, it is less in the Netherlands, where even Groningen didn't get to call itself a Cycling City last year. No British city is remotely like Groningen.
  • The training of cyclists and drivers must improve and cycle safety should become a core part of the driving test 

    This has long been something that cyclists in the UK have discussed. However, training of cyclists and drivers has a far smaller effect on safety than infrastructural changes. The Dutch follow sustainable safety guidelines to make roads safer by design even if mistakes are made by road users. No matter how good training is, and mistakes will continue to be made because people are not perfect.
30 km/h street with separate
cycle-path in the Netherlands.
  • 20mph should become the default speed limit in residential areas where there are no cycle lanes.

    A good start, but why stop there ? 20 mph limits are also better where there are cycle-lanes. In the Netherlands you sometimes find a 30 km/h speed limit even with completely separated cycle-paths, and through villages. Again, The Netherlands leads the way, with a third of all Dutch roads already having a 30 km/h or lower speed limit. However, merely reducing the speed limit is not a panacea. It has been shown to no longer be quite so effective as it once was.

    When cyclists are not on segregated cycle-paths they benefit greatly from streets which have been made to be unattractive to through traffic. The fewer motor vehicles, and the slower that they travel, the safer it is for pedestrians and cyclists. In the Netherlands roads have been transformed to exclude motor vehicles not only on individual streets but also across whole cities.
  • Businesses should be invited to sponsor cycleways and cycling super-highways, mirroring the Barclays-backed bicycle hire scheme in London.

    This one is a mystery to me. The Times' is a relatively right leaning paper so perhaps that's the explanation for why this item should appear in their manifesto. Why otherwise should construction of cycle-paths require sponsorship any more than the construction of roads does ? Are cycle-paths less important than roads ?
  • Every city, even those without an elected mayor, should appoint a cycling commissioner to push home reforms. 

    Yes, let's have someone in charge, but will such a commissioner have real authority ? Most cities already have, or had, "cycling officers", but their positions are insecure and some have recently been made made redundant. Unfortunately, even when cycling officers are employed, they are not necessarily listened to.
The Times has made an excellent job of creating a buzz and of getting mass support. However, it is unfortunate that they didn't do more investigation of issues before writing their manifesto. As it stands, they have simply have not been ambitious enough.

Much of the manifesto reads rather similarly to TfL's "Cycle Safety Action Plan" of 2010. For instance, London has already been busy with a review of junctions, but that has resulted not in real improvements for cyclists but in rather inadequate proposals for Bow and Blackfriars amongst other places. Merely asking for a review and expecting that it will turn out well is not enough. The Times' call for additional funding is unfortunately particularly feeble, the extent that it works against any real progress being possible.

Political support
Politicians from all parties are 'supporting' The Times' campaign. I'm not surprised as to many of them it must seem like a gift. They can get good publicity by saying they'll support the campaign, with no risk of actually really having to do too much. British politicians in any case have a long history of offering support to cycling when asked, making big promises, but not actually going through with it. Even within the first week of this campaign, the Road Safety Minister had already said he was "wary of calls to switch money from a national roads budget to cycling".

It is not clear how long The Times' attention will remain on cycling. Verbal support from politicians may be offered now, only to evaporate once the spotlight moves on. 25000 signatures sounds like a lot, but in a population of over 60 million it's far from a mass movement. Considerably larger protests have been ignored in recent history by many of the same politicians.

Unfortunately, because the manifesto is weak, even if everything that The Times requested was to happen, the government would still have got off rather lightly. This can leave campaigners in a very difficult situation, of having achieved all that "they asked for" but not being happy with the result. Unfortunately, British cycling infrastructure is known across the world for its lack of quality.

Some skepticism required
I know it's exciting to see a newspaper taking notice of cycling, but too much unthinking hype has condensed around The Times' campaign. Yes it's very glossy, and the celebrity and politician support impresses many, but unfortunately the two months that they spent researching were not enough to result in asking the right questions or suggesting the right solutions. In fact, the manifesto could be seen as being quite dangerous due to it setting such a low bar for improvement.

For Britain to ever achieve something which approaches best practice in cycling will take a lot more than this. Don't get too carried away with what is being called for by The Times. Try to keep politicians to any promises that they make, but actually campaigners need to be asking them for an awful lot more than The Times is asking them for. Given the low aspirations of the manifesto it could easily be the case that a little "negotiation" could result in requests for change being diluted to the point where they are irrelevant.

Cyclists today in Assen on a clean,
wide, smooth cycle-path next to a
frozen canal at -5 C
People outside the UK, including in Italy from where a popular sports newspaper, La Gazzetta Dello Sport, has joined in to support The Times' campaign, should be especially wary of taking too much notice of this. This is a campaign by a newspaper which has a patchy history so far as cycling is concerned. The aims of the campaign are not enough for the UK to achieve mass cycling, and they're not enough for Italy or other countries to do so either. If you want to know what is required to cause a real change in the transport habits of a population, you need to look at the Netherlands, at a real example of mass cycling, not be distracted by a smoke and mirrors show from the UK.

The Times isn't alone amongst British newspapers in suddenly deciding to support cycling. Five years ago it was The Guardian supplement of March 2007 which sold quite a few newspapers to cyclists. Jon Snow wrote about being an embattled pedaller amongst other articles which were mainly about sports cycling. Nothing really changed. London's Evening Standard also had a campaign in 2007. Again, nothing changed. The Independent supposedly had backing from the Government for their campaign in April 2011, but even with this "support", nothing changed.

We contacted The Times, The Guardian and several other British newspapers in both 2006 and 2008 to suggest that they might perhaps take an interest in the study tours we organise to demonstrate the differences between Dutch and British infrastructure and how it relates to the different cycling modal shares of the two countries. We cram in a lot more than anyone is likely to pick up on their own in a short period of time. There were no replies.

Like many people new to cycle campaigning, The Times journalists were sucked in by the hype from Copenhagen. However, I was amused to see in their video from the city that Copenhagen now only claims my figure of 10000 cyclists per day over a route where they used to claim 36000 passed each day. Perhaps it's because I pointed out an error in one of their press releases.

The Highways Agency, mentioned in point number 4, is only responsible for England. Funding in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is not addressed by The Times' manifesto.


David said...

Totally agree with you David. However, I have been using the Times campaign to highlight what I consider to be good cycling infrastructure. To this end I have been sending links to yours and Mark's videos to local MPs and councillors. While we've caught their attention we have to get across our thoughts, and these videos are an extremely valuable resource, so thank you for them.

Mick Mack said...

This is the sanest analysis I have heard so far. I'm very sceptical of The Times' motives, regardless of individual journos reasons. It's a marketing ploy and is not even, as you rightly point out, close to standards already set elsewhere. There is too much vested interest for the fundamentals to change. No radical outcome will be had from the politicos, because they have no spine to face the motoring/petro-chemical lobby. Until that changes we will have a pathetic attempt to evade a real, intelligently considered, humane, transport/environmental/health policy working together. Thank you for your insights into this garbage of a 'manifesto'.

Ewout said...

"20 mph limits are also better where there are cycle-lanes. In the Netherlands you sometimes find a 30 km/h speed limit even with completely separated cycle-paths, and through villages."

Actually, this is against CROW-guidelines and the principles of sustainable safety for a couple of reasons. One of the reasons is that when there are cyclepaths or cyclelanes, cyclists must use them, while the 30 zones are meant to be a shared space for all road users to reduce speed and conflicts.

David Arditti said...

Unusually, David, I think you are quite wrong here. This manifesto represents quite a profound departure from traditional UK establishment attitudes to cycling, and that is why it is important.

The main thing you have misinterpreted is point 6 of the manifesto. This is partially because they have phrased it badly. Point 6 is not really about 20 mph limits, it is about what you are always writing about, segregation. Point 6 really is a demand for segregated cycle tracks on all main roads (which will not have the 20 mph limit). This is not clear in the manifesto itself, but it is explained more clearly elsewhere on The Time's campaign pages, as I pointed out in my piece here

When you read the whole campaign, the implications and intentions of the manifesto become clearer. It is clear to me that the journalists have understood (at least vaguely) what sort of infrastructure is required to achieve mass cycling on the Dutch model. No, I would not have worded the manifesto as they did. It is faulty and has potential for misinterpretation. But their intentions are very good, and I think they have already achieved more than many years of campaigning by UK cycling organisations. That is why I think too much cynicism about this from cycling commentators is rather sad. Yes, we should demand more, but we should not be too negative either. I view this development as overwhelmingly positive for cycling in the UK.

David Hembrow said...

Ewout: There is no one size fits all solution. In the example in my photo, a direct main cycling route passes through the same area as a 30 km/h service road. The cycle-path is designed to be straight and give direct access from the city centre to thousands of homes, while the road serves just a few hundred homes, has quite sharp bends, and gives way to the cycle-path when they cross. This really works very well.

David: My biggest concern is that by initially asking for too little, campaigners make it difficult to ask for enough at a later date.

The Times should never have suggested that "world-class" conditions for cyclists would follow by spending 100 million pounds per year. This makes it difficult ever to achieve higher rates of funding at a later date. A twitter response by David Rose of The Times shows that they realise there is a difference.

Language is important. Other worthy campaigns have been spoiled by the watering down of requests, and by asking for too little for cycling, the same could happen.

It would be far better had The Times' campaign talked about 100 million as an easily achievable first step towards the funding that is really needed. With a little more research they could have pointed out that cycling contributes more than it costs rather than falling into the "too expensive" trap.

Vocus Dwabe said...

I agree with David Arditti:the "Times" campaign isn't so much remarkable for its demands, which are as patchy and half-thought-through as you say, but for the fact that they're being made at all by a traditionally Conservative, Murdoch-owned newspaper. The trigger for it was one of the paper's journalists - a photogenic young woman, of course - ending up on life support after being pulled from beneath a lorry. But it still shows that a sea-change is taking place in the UK's collective thinking: the realisation that we can't go on like this - and when petrol hits £2.00 per litre we won't be able to.

What I found encouraging about it was that for once the debate was actually looking at cycling infrastructure rather than at palliatives: at preventing collisions rather than trying to mitigate their consequences. The traditional "Daily Mail" tribal chant of make the scum wear helmets hi-viz and licence plates has been conspicuously lacking these past few days.

Slow Factory said...

What is the history in the U.K for media-led revolutions? (I realize that they work against them...).

ravydavygravy said...

I'm disappointed by your response to the Times campaign. I think you are missing how it is reframing the debate in this is country.

Cyclists here are generally regarded as law breaking 'lycra louts' which is why columists sometimes think it is acceptable to write spiteful articles advocating violence against cyclists. The debate in the media is usually around compulsory helmets, road tax and cycle registration and stiffer penalties for pavement cyclists, red light jumpers and 'dangerous' cycling.Pro cycling comment usually means soft measures like training and publicity or advice about increasing visibility.

Now a national newspaper has thrown itself (2 consecutive front pages!) into a campaign which says we "must build cities that are fit for cycling." It calls for "next generation cycle routes" and "world-class cycling infrastructure". I think it could be a game changer.

25,000 signatures in a week should not be sniffed at from a paper with a circulation of 400,000 and although measured against the general population it is not so impressive, the campaign has real political potential.

It coincides with increasing concern at the frequency of cyclist deaths; the Blackfriars Bridge campaign; the London Cycling Campaign's 'Love London,Go Dutch' campaign; the London Mayoral election ; the London Olympics (I live in London); Connect 2 delivery and even a time of austerity and high petrol prices. All these factors might provide momemtum towards the tipping point where cycling becomes a mass movement.

We are not starting from where the Netherlands are now. We are not even starting from where you were in the 70's. The fact that the last Secretary of State for Transport was promoted for declaring an "end to the War on the Motorist" gives an indication of the political environment we are in.

Please reconsider your position and continue to post your brilliant examples of what world- class cycling infrastructure looks like.

Vocus Dwabe said...

"What is the history in the U.K for media-led revolutions?"

Patchy at best: some of us are old enough to remember the Daily Mail's "We're Backing Britain" campaign for national regeneration in 1968, which barely lasted the week. But if the media do manage to articulate an underlying public mood rather than trying to create one they may achieve things: and I detect here a distinct possibility that they might have done so.

Too early to say really. It may just be another flash in the pan; the Times editor upset because one of his own journalists got squashed, when if it had been someone from the Independent they'd hardly have mentioned it, and by next month they'll have forgotten all about it and moved on to some juicier issue. But undeniably, more people cycle every day; more people are being killed or maimed; and a feeling is growing that this is no longer what WW1 generals called "acceptable wastage", because tomorrow it might be them or their daughter.

We shall see. But blogs like this one certainly have a role to play in keeping the issues talked about and making sure that the whole thing isn't side-tracked into simply making cyclists do more to look after their own safety while everyone else goes on exactly as before.

NB. The once rather enjoyable Guardian cycling blog seems to have been seriously wrong-footed by the Times campaign and is trying to ignore the whole thing. This is what happens if you allow yourself to become a playground for trolls: you end up as an ill-tempered irrelevance.

Anonymous said...

Much-needed level headed anaylsis, although I don't quite share your pessimism. In fact I'm immensely encouraged that a journalist working on the campaign has actually read your blog!

It's cycle campaigners themselves who are often behind the curve. Now at last the LCC "gets it". If the other big campaign groups would all come on board we might just see some actual change on the ground.

Talking of "off-message", where did all that nonsense about helmets and high visibilty clothing come from? The CTC? Sustrans?

The battle for decent cycling infrastructure has only just begun. Where's Freewheeler when you need him (or her)?


Vocus Dwabe said...

"where did all that nonsense about helmets and high visibilty clothing come from?"

The Olympic rower James Cracknell, who has a thing about them and couldn't resist sticking his metaphorical oar in. Otherwise, the debate thus far has been encouragingly focussed on the real issues.

David Hembrow said...

Vocus, ravydavygravy: I'm quite happy to see support for cycling from any corner. Actually, though, that a right wing paper should support a private means of transport seems quite natural. Why would they not ? Over here in NL you find that the centre-right parties organise bike tours as part of their fund-raising, and promise infrastructural improvements because that's what their demographic wants.

But a "sea change" ? I see no reason to think that this series of articles represents any such thing. We will, of course, only know at a later date. However, the odds are that in five years time this campaign will be as well remembered as that of The Guardian, The Independent or the Evening Standard.

Unfortunately, there are several points on which The Times has got it wrong:

They've concentrated too much on "cyclists" (a despised "out group" in the UK). I've emphasized before that it is better to talk about benefits to society.

They have also included rather too much gory dissection of how dangerous it all is. This does not make the idea of getting kids onto bikes particularly attractive.

The Times also have asked for, and put their name behind, inadequate infrastructure. Ken's 5 second advance lights, for instance. How exactly does this make an already frightening and dangerous advanced stop line any less frightening ? Cyclists merely get a head start on the same infrastructure, at best this relies on London's drivers forgetting that they live in the red light jumping centre of the universe and they don't even get that if they arrive a little too late at the junction. Will we see parents queuing up to let their children cycle unaccompanied across London with the addition of these lights ?

However, The Times' biggest error is that they've talked about cycling as a cost to society, not a benefit. What's more, in asking for much too little money to actually achieve anything, by putting that "100 million" number out there with such a blast of publicity, and by getting people to sign up for it, they have inadvertantly queered the pitch for those with more level heads who wish to achieve the amount of funding that cycling actually needs. This is really harmful.

It's rather a shame that they didn't do more research before publishing.

Anonymous: I still have doubts about the LCC. They've made a big splash, but with ideas about "Dutch" infrastructure which show an almost complete misunderstanding of what the Dutch would actually do in similar circumstances. We did try to help them, but they were resistant to offers.

Clark in Vancouver said...

I'm of two minds on this. I agree with David H. that it isn't enough and could lead to being watered down to be ineffective, or after this bit of spotlight is later forgotten. On the other hand there could be some real change going on.
I look at what's happened here in Vancouver in the past few years. From a lot of opposition (fomented by the tabloids) to any cycling infrastructure to now a few years later where everybody has pretty well accepted that there needs to be a place for cycling to be.
I think what this campaign in London is good for is that it's an opportunity to bring up other issues that aren't included in this manifesto. Get people thinking about things. Keep asking the designers and politicians for what you want.
The attention is now to cycling in London. Take advantage of that to introduce what should really happen and stretch their minds toward something more.
For a long term solution, work to change the guidelines for how streets are designed.

Vocus Dwabe said...

"that a right wing paper should support a private means of transport seems quite natural"

That's one possible take on it - though strictly speaking it's a neo-liberal position rather than a conservative one. In the UK context though, up until now the Right's habitual view has been the brutally Darwinian one that weaker groups of road-users like cyclists and pedestrians should simply get out of the way of the go-getting wealth-creators in their SUVs. So that's what makes the Times campaign remarkable: that it's coming from such an unexpected quarter. This time it can't simply be dismissed as the irrelevant bleatings of a lot of Guardian-reading subversives.

Joseba said...

It's nice to dream about Dutch style traffic segregation. I for one would certainly love to have that in the UK.

However if you watch a bit more closely there's one essential ingredient that makes it possible: Space. In all of the videos linked indirectly from this blog, there so much of it that there is even plenty of green space left and right of the cycle path.

The same approach simply isn't feasible in London. Where would we find all of that space?

So I think the Times campaign quite rightly focuses on measures that are more realistic in our environment.

David Hembrow said...

Joseba: The idea that Britain's streets are uniquely too narrow is ridiculous and it has been debunked any number of times.

Cities in every country on Earth have combination of narrow and wide streets, many cities have a core which dates back many hundreds of years to before planners planned for cars (including where we live in the Netherlands). Planners in The Netherlands have dealt with the problem of narrow streets just as they have dealt with the problems caused by wide main roads. There is not one solution for all places, but a number of solutions which between them cover all eventualities.

This is just one of many myths which are aired all too often. You can read responses to all these myths in a separate blog post.