OPINION

Cycling Embassy of Great Britain – the ambassador responds

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Yesterday we published a guest blog by Carlton Reid on why he thinks the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain is a cycling orgnisation too far. Today Jim Davis one of the founding members of the Cycling Embassy responds…

I was a little surprised when Carlton Reid decided to attack the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain yesterday (and on Valentines Day too). He spoke with a World-weary cynicism of someone who knew all about the history of cycle campaigning in this country. Which is exactly why I want to try something new.

He states that the only Embassy policy that is different to other long-established organizations is ‘segregation first’ but I think this is a large fundamental distinction, if completely oversimplified.

The internet is a wonderful thing. It has allowed people to share cycling and also campaigning experiences. Through such sites as Warrington Cycle Campaign’s ‘Facility of the Month’ examples of dreadful, dangerous cycle infrastructure soon became infamous throughout the campaigning world (it’s certainly a highlight of my month). The internet also allowed people to see what was being accomplished in other countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark. With envious eyes, one could see relaxed, cheerful people in normal clothes on cycle streets and dedicated infrastructure. And then wonder why on Earth this isn’t being done over here, let alone being campaigned for.

The way I see it, cycle campaigners were saying ‘no’ to segregated infrastructure because they didn’t want to see any more appalling examples of what a Highways Department can do on crystal meth. Whilst they had a point (despite cycle organisations helping set the guidelines), I don’t believe that just saying ‘no’ and then pointing the public toward cycle training and the works of John Franklin is enough. This rubbish continues to be built, whether CTC or Cycle Nation or all the local campaign groups that it represents like it or not.

There is a bit of a contradiction in Carlton's argument for us. On the one hand he seems to be saying 'Don’t campaign for segregated infrastructure. It will never succeed. The CTC & Cycle Nation are pragmatists, and they’re steering well clear of it.' and on the other, 'Don’t campaign on the same the things as the CTC & Cycle Nation! You risk division!'. Whilst they make their minds up as to what exactly they represent, we'll try our own way thanks. A way that the public can get behind.

When the Local Transport White Paper was published, it basically threw all cycle funding out to the provinces where local campaign groups would not only have to scrap for scraps, but also fight the creative interpretations that a Council can place on what constitutes ‘Sustainable Transport’. In essence, widening a road can be ‘Sustainable transport’ as it can be seen to improve traffic flow, which in turn reduces emissions. More crucially, I regard this as a massive smoke screen. It allows the Government to say ‘Look over there!’ and while everyone focuses on cycling issues at a local level, they can widen the M25 to the tune of billions along with more motorway extensions and bypasses utterly hostile to anything without an engine.

I would like to see the Embassy focus at national level, to make sure that best practice is adopted as a standard as opposed to just guidelines that are too open to misinterpretation. I would like to see the basis formed from best practice around the World, particularly the Netherlands and Denmark, which currently manages a modal share that we can only dream of over here. I basically want to give local campaign groups a nice meaty stick to wield for a change.

Improving the way in which bicycle users are consulted could be improved dramatically too (for a laugh, try asking your council for a Safety Audit on a piece of cycle infrastructure local to you that you find dangerous). Above all, I want to see cycling placed firmly back on the transport agenda getting a deserving share of the transport spend. I simply don’t see current cycle organisations pushing in the same direction we are, and certainly not looking across the North Sea for inspiration where the benefits go way beyond riding a bike in comfort and safety. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Carlton pointed out that we couldn’t find a cycling ‘Sugar Daddy’ for funding. Quite frankly, the cycling world is the last place I would look to attract funding. We have ideas on where to go and there have been plenty of offers of donations once we get our governance established so the future is very exciting indeed. We are appealing to those that want to cycle as opposed to those that do.

The start up meeting held on the 29th January was very well attended with people coming down to London from such places as Dumfries, Newcastle, Bristol and a handsome chap from Worthing. A saucer was passed around and £80.56 raised to start up a not-for profit company. We came away focused and united and willing to try something new, with slightly lighter pockets.

The Embassy has attracted a lot of support from people that have become angry and disillusioned with current campaigns. We aren't novices at this. I think that the main problem is that Cycling Organisations are fantastic at communicating to the already converted but spectacularly awful at projecting themselves to a general public that couldn’t give a hoot. It’s nice for people like Carlton to attend self congratulatory campaign conferences and trade shows, because it’s easier to ignore the fact that approximately 97% of the population isn’t listening but might like to. CTC were given a large sum of money a while ago to promote cycling through a cinema advert. The ‘Cyclehero’ campaign to me demonstrates how current organisations fail to grasp the public perception of cycling with the ‘Hero’ as a woman looking like a Marvel comic extra. People just want to get to the shops or the library – they don’t care that cycling saves the environment or improves the nations health or can make you look like Catwoman. They would want a transport mode that is easy and direct without the need for safety equipment.

In conclusion, I certainly don’t want to see the Cycling Embassy being in conflict but rather enhancing older more established cycling organizations as we look at the situation with fresh eyes and specific aims. If we’re wrong, then fine. We shall scuttle back to our campaign groups and blogs from whence we came. But if we’re right, and I know we are, the implications for society as well as the older cycling organizations are as numerous as they are fantastic. I believe you have to kick start a cycling culture by representing the 97% that want to cycle as opposed to the 3% that already do.

Jim Davis is founder of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain as well as Worthing Revolutions Cycle Campaign Group and the Worthing Cycle Forum. He was Information Officer at CTC over 2002-2003 and still reminisces about his Raleigh Grifter.

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