Bikes, barriers and breakthroughs

This article was published in 2005, in Newsletter 61.

Twice a year the Cycle Campaign Network organises a conference for cycling campaigners. This year Jim and Jane Chisholm represented us at the Spring Conference.

Even if I had travelled to the CTC/CCN Spring Cycle Campaigns Conference at Godalming in Surrey and only stayed until the first tea break I would have considered my journey worthwhile. The only problem was the pang of conscience the Keynote Speaker, Mayer Hillman, inflicted on me for having made that journey by car. With the passion of an evangelist and the intellect of a first rate academic – he is Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Institute of Policy Studies and a prolific author – he argued his proposition that carbon rationing is the only realistic way for the world’s population to limit damage from climate change. He is dismayed at politicians’ lack of urgency in embracing his cause and has recently completed a book, commissioned by Penguin, entitled How We Can Save the Planet. All this sounds desperately depressing, but Mayer is such an enthusiastic and upbeat speaker that he left me feeling that, unlikely though it sounds, there is just a possibility that people could start to adapt their lives before it is too late.

Mayer is, of course, a keen cyclist, and has been so for over 60 years. Indeed, as he pointed out, if carbon rationing were ever to become a reality, the bicycle would become virtually the only mode of transport unaffected by it. (So Cambridge Cycling Campaign would probably have no need to exist in Mayer’s world – you’d have to find a new excuse for your social events and I would have a husband who actually comes home in the evenings.)

Reality quickly set in. As Chair of the newly formed Cycling England, which advises the Department of Transport on the promotion of cycling, Phillip Darnton, former chief executive of Raleigh UK, asked for a budget of £70M. He received £5M. They have a great little slogan: More people cycling, More safely, More often. I suppose they could have added ‘More money please.’ Phillip’s advice is to work in areas where there is a will and the numbers to make things work (tough luck if you are the only keen cyclist for miles around like the delegate I met from Cheshire). It will be interesting to watch the progress of this new initiative.

The remaining speakers represented a mix of local and specialist interests. Simon Pratt represented Sustrans, Sue Sharp transport for the disabled, Alex Sully and William Ward the highway engineer’s point of view. Alix Stredwick runs a project on Cycling for Women in a deprived area of London. Here, women who cannot afford other means of transport to get themselves and their children out and about are finding their lives and their health transformed by their new freedom. Finally, Alec McCalden described the kind of difficulties experienced by the Godalming Cycling Campaign which probably represented the frustrations of many of the local campaigners present.

I am glad that the CTC has moved from its roots as a ‘cycling for leisure’ organisation to embrace local campaigns designed to promote cycling for all purposes. This is, of course, where CCyC comes in, along with campaigners who had travelled from all over the country. Unfortunately, we all agreed, it seems impossible to get through to officialdom that cycling can be more than just a leisure activity. There is little recognition of a suppressed demand for better and safer amenities. (People regularly comment to me: I would love to cycle BUT…) And in a world where spin and image are everything the case for cycling just does not seem to get through. With 30% of households nationwide having no car, the crumbling public transport system pricing itself beyond the pockets of many, much talk about the nation’s health and of children having no exercise, add to that the issues of carbon output, one might be led to think that the bicycle holds the answer to a multitude of problems. Alas there is no Jamie Oliver of cycling to make this so.

An excellent evening meal had been organised at a local cafŽeacute; and the following day the organisers had arranged some long distance rides and a couple of local rides, one off-road and one covering some 20 miles of local roads and lanes. We signed up for the last, confident that, by cycling flat-out, we could keep up with what the CTC described as a leisurely pace. (Those pedalling the 150 miles to Stonehenge and back had already set out so there was, thankfully, no danger of confusion.) Our companions were friendly but bemused that Cambridge actually needed a cycling campaign! However they did wonder how we coped with the strong East Anglian wind, a problem I had never really thought about before. As we struggled up each successive hill I decided that at least every slope has its compensatory side whereas if I set out to work with a headwind it always seems to have changed direction by the time I come home. The leafy Surrey countryside, then full of rhododendrons in bloom, made the ride a delight.

I left full of enthusiasm and with my head buzzing with ideas for initiatives. Sadly, I thought, the speakers were addressing the wrong audience. I was already converted – but I do not have the skills, the status or the charisma to make any of these things happen. Godalming Town Hall should have been full of politicians, managers, spin doctors and high-profile entertainers. To make more people cycle more safely more often we need to give the cyclist credibility and decent facilities. And we all need to read Mayer Hillman’s book.

Jane Chisholm