A war on our roads?

This article was published in 2013, in Newsletter 106.

December brought a BBC documentary entitled ‘War on Britain’s Roads’. It created quite a stir, but it helped us to understand our own work better. As cycling advocates we make the case for the many benefits of human-powered transport, but we are not soldiers in a war which could be won or lost by fighting other road users.

Yet it was no accident that we were depicted in this confrontational light. Talk about cycling seems to fall into three modes. There is the hysterical mode which considers it downright suicidal to enter the road without airbag and ABS. Then there is the bad conscience mode of doing too little of it which Judith Green identified in her research into moral standards in transport (see Co-ordinator’s comment in Newsletter 103). Lastly, and most pervasively, we have the confrontational mode which pits drivers against cyclists and leads to talk of war and conflict. This mode is peculiarly British. It has to do with the media culture in this country, an aggressive style which flourishes when it can attach itself to a dispute or a fight, when it can disgrace some seemingly good thing or throw up some dirty linen. Readers have been trained to relish these vacuous fights. They attract eyeballs and advertising revenue. Journalists are well advised to keep the conflicts coming, and to construct them with their own pens. Journalists love cycling because it seems to offer cheap conflict fodder.

How different from the work I did with a local newspaper in California. Do you have more first-person stories of people that made the transition to cycling? Is it really possible to live without a car? What do you do when it rains? What about shopping? Such questions came from an ethos of community education and are a million miles from how our local press thinks about cycling. The steady focus on conflict has made invisible the opportunity, peculiar to the most-cycled city in our nation, to include human-powered transport in the Cambridge News weekly Drive supplement.

Politicians have a special responsibility when dealing with the press and its focus on conflict. They do get front page coverage when their words turn local partners into mortal enemies, but the issues remain unresolved. Therefore we shall stay clear of any such conflict and maintain the quiet calm of those who have learned something and want to share it because its time has come. And we must learn to speak not only as cyclists, but also as drivers, former drivers, pedestrians and bus passengers.

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In the months ahead, we shall continue our work to remedy many decades of traffic planning which have produced a road network built for speed and cars, and failed to produce facilities which are welcoming and safe for all cyclists of all ages, including mothers and daughters, fathers and sons. As we learn the lesson of the BBC Road Wars and move away from the role the media has reserved for us and speak as residents, there will be significant opportunities in 2013. The County Council assumes responsibility for public health and will understand the benefits of large-scale adjustments to our roads which allow more people to choose the healthier ways of getting about. Connecting Addenbrooke’s and the Science Park, the Chisholm Trail would be just what the doctor ordered.

Michael Cahn, Co-ordinator