This article was published in 2009, in Newsletter 87.
There was a big turnout at the Friends’ Meeting House for the 2009 AGM, many drawn by Dr Mayer Hillman, a very lively and fluent speaker (without slides or Powerpoint) who was keen to stress at the outset that he dealt only in objective research, examining all his conclusions critically. Having practised as an architect and town-planner for thirteen years, in 1970 he completed a thesis on designing towns for people and joined the Policy Studies Institute, where he is now a Senior Fellow Emeritus. Having been asked by the British Medical Association about the ‘dangers of cycling’, he quickly persuaded them to fund research on the health benefits of cycling. The report Cycling: Towards Health and Safety appeared in 1992, and has been hugely influential ever since.
His talk started by dispelling ten popular myths about cycling, such as that it’s only useful for very short journeys, whereas in fact two of every three journeys are under five miles, thus taking half an hour at most to cycle – which is precisely the amount of daily exercise we’re recommended to take! There’s also the idea that cycling is only for fit young people, whereas cycling actually keeps you fit (he claimed that cyclists live up to ten years longer than non-cyclists, and cited his own family history), and that hills are a problem, whereas they should just be welcomed as exercise. Some people think cyclists are always getting caught in the rain, to which he responded ‘Oh dear, do you have blotting-paper skin?’, and less flippantly pointed out that there’s just a 1 in 100 chance of getting wet on a ten-minute journey. Nor is it really dangerous, with one death per 30 million kilometres cycled, set against the longer lifespan of cyclists and other health benefits.
With a 20 mph (or even 18 mph) urban limit controlled by GPS satellites, the roads could be much safer, but the farcical situation of government being driven by the Daily Mail’s headlines make this unachievable, at least at present. As for drivers having the right to know where speed cameras are, Mayer asked if shoplifters should have the right to know where cameras would spot them committing their crimes!
He was equally forthright on the issue of helmets, which are basically useless in collisions with motor vehicles, accusing manufacturers of lying for not making this clear; if anything, helmets make things worse, as we all take more risks if we feel safer. Pressure for compulsory helmet use comes mainly from the surgeons, who just see the awful injuries rather than the big picture. As for public transport being faster or otherwise better than cycling, he pointed out that to operate for, say, 18 hours a day it always requires subsidy, and cycling is always faster on a door-to-door basis in cities. And as for there being no money for cycling, you can get 10 km of cycle route for the cost of one metre of London Underground’s Jubilee Line extension.
There was a major gear change as Mayer moved on to the topic of climate change, stating that we are ‘on a trajectory to the extinction of life on earth’ and that the situation was already out of control, as a result of our addiction to fossil fuels and the fact that CO2 stays in the atmosphere for 100 years. What’s needed is a global framework for ‘contraction and convergence’, i.e., reduction in fossil fuel use and a move to global equality of consumption. But he admitted there was little chance of this happening by democratic means and felt governments might have to take dictatorial action. Since 1990 he has been calling for carbon rationing, with a worldwide annual per capita allowance of under half a tonne (with a return flight from London to New York or average annual British car use each taking 4 tonnes). Now he feels this is inevitable and therefore walking and cycling will soon be more or less our only ways of getting around!
Answering questions, Mayer stressed that questions about helmets and the carbon cost of producing a bike were totally unimportant compared with the over-riding danger of climate change. A member of the World Development Movement said that a Freedom of Information request to the county council had revealed that their business mileage had risen 13% in three years as against a target of an 8% reduction – Meyer said that this too was meaningless, as the only sane choice must be to reduce motorised travel to zero. He wondered why we were still worrying about issues like helmets – although it seems to me that getting more people cycling now will make carbon rationing more acceptable if and when it comes. In any case no-one was arguing with him on the issue of climate change (although ‘the extinction of ALL life’ may be a bit extreme).
Calling out ‘Cycling is our Salvation!’, Mayer rushed off to his taxi at 9.10 – no doubt he was aware of the irony, but why didn’t he have his bike?
The formal business of the AGM started with last year’s minutes being approved (with the proviso that Ruth Slatter had left the committee during the year), and Martin Lucas-Smith’s review of the year. After a desperately busy 2008, 2009 has been more restful, thanks in part to the slowdown in housing development. Charitable status has been applied for at last, and the £7 million of Cycling Demonstration Town funding is leading to better facilities, built to Cycling England standards, such as the Addenbrooke’s Access Road (the first to give cycle tracks priority over all side roads) and Hills Road bridge, where more of the roadspace is being allocated to cyclists. There’s also a developing consensus on Gilbert Road, where on-road parking will give way to cycle lanes. However there are mixed views on the cycleways proposed in South Cambridgeshire. The CyclingSorted website will allow the public to show where cycle parking is needed and obstructions need removing, and the CTC’s Stop SMIDSY site will record not only accidents but also a general survey of bad driving. Our CycleStreets site went nationwide in March, and Bikeability training is developing well. The county’s Transport Commission, set up by rural councillors, was well run, with an amusing double-act by its two leaders, and recommended a congestion charge, but only in 2017 and only if needed in terms of congestion trigger-points – meaning essentially that it’s been binned.
The campaign also made progress on smaller issues, such as 20 mph limits, traffic impacts of the Mill Road Tesco, contraflows in Petersfield and the cycleway alongside the Guided Bus route.
The Strategy Day was productive, and we will probably have more current news on our website, and make more effort to engage with the police. We support the current campaign against cyclists without lights, as compliance is important. Policing issues and the Cycling Demonstration Town agenda will be the main issues for the next committee.
Shorter reports were presented by Clare Macrae (Treasurer), David Earl (Membership), Monica Frisch (Newsletter) and Sally Butterfield (Events). The accounts have not had an external review – volunteer please! We have a good surplus this year, thanks to three years of growing membership, and some smaller Newsletters after the previous year’s hyperactivity; but membership renewals seem to be dropping. One alarming story was that about five months ago South Cambridgeshire council officers refused to forward our Newsletter to their councillors!
Sally Butterfield announced that she was standing down, and thanked almost twenty people who’d helped at events; and Simon Nuttall made an impassioned plea for us to raise our game to respond to the £7 million funding, urging more people to stand for election to our committee.
We finally moved on, after 10 pm, to the committee elections, and the existing office holders (with the exception of Sally and Mark Irving) were re-elected unopposed. Sally Guyer was elected unopposed to the post of Press Officer, and eight people stood for the seven Officer Without Portfolio positions. Fortunately, Simon Nuttall volunteered to take Sally’s place as Events Officer so, as is traditional, no volunteer was turned away!
The meeting ended at 10.25, with a quick stacking of chairs and a move to the Maypole, where discussion continued until midnight.