Campaigning: idealism vs. pragmatism

This article was published in 2011, in Newsletter 95.

 Martin Lucas-Smith, Co-ordinator of the Campaign, sets out a personal view of the realities of campaigning.

Idealism vs. pragmatism in action: compare a typical wide segregated cycle path in the Netherlands (in Assen) with a typical off-road cycleway in the UK where cyclists are forced to give way at every side road (Milton Road, Cambridge).
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The last two months have seen a debate within the ‘blogosphere’ (website discussion forums and the website Twitter) about the extent to which cycle campaigners in the UK have failed to advance an agenda of genuine priority for cyclists. Campaign groups have been criticised for seeing half-hearted infrastructure appear in our towns and cities rather than the Dutch-style, segregated and fully prioritised infrastructure that many, myself included, would like to see.

How they do it in the Netherlands

Our trip a few years ago to the Netherlands, hosted by our good friend David Hembrow, saw a tour of Assen and Groningen, where Dutch cycleways reign supreme. New provision there was of high standard, with 4m-wide cycle paths segregated from pedestrians, priority over sideroads, absence of vehicles blocking cycle paths, and a higher standard of road user behaviour, both in terms of more courteous driving and virtually no cyclist law-breaking.

The resulting system in the Netherlands is a more efficient transport system, where many more people use their bicycles – even by Cambridge standards – and where the kind of aggravation between user groups on the roads in the UK is rarely seen. In other words, a completely different culture to what we sadly experience daily over here.

Cycling is still seen as a minority interest in the UK, despite its clear benefits, and anti-cyclist mentalities pervade the media

Most notably, this kind of provision was usable by both newer cyclists, for whom these paths are safe and segregated from other traffic, and by fast confident cyclists, for whom these wide, unobstructed and well-maintained cycleways enabled very fast journey times to be achieved. In other words, the whole issue of the off-road vs on-road debate in the UK simply doesn’t arise. Provision is of such high quality that there seems to be little demand from cyclists in the Netherlands to ride on the road where cycle provision exists. Indeed – why would they want to, when things work so well?

And I think it is fair to say that every member of our group – both fast or slow cyclists – who went on the Dutch tour felt the same: a relaxed but highly efficient way of facilitating cycling.

Back in the UK

Back in the UK, the traditional position of cycling groups, and one which is also the policy of our own Campaign, is for the ‘hierarchy of provision’, namely that the first priority should be to make the roads safer (through less traffic and slower speeds) so that people can cycle in them easily without the need for special infrastructure. The next in the priority list of solutions is on-road provision to mitigate problems that remain (given how hard traffic/speed reduction is politically), followed lastly by segregated, off-road provision (with shared-use paths alongside roads being the absolute last resort).

Indeed, there is a long-standing opposition in the UK to any notion that cyclists should not be allowed to use the roads where a cycle track exists alongside. This position can be traced back over 100 years to the early days of the CTC, when in 1888, bicycles were declared to be carriages and therefore allowed to use the road like any other vehicle.

The Campaign has over many years sought to improve the general road environment to make it safer, and has on many occasions opposed off-road provision, particularly shared-use, where we have judged it to be harmful to cyclists and not conducive to getting more new people cycling.

Competing principles

Clearly, then, these two positions are quite different. But how is it possible for campaigners like myself both to oppose off-road provision in practice whilst wanting to see off-road Dutch-style paths as our ultimate aim?

The answer, clearly, lies in the context in which our campaigning operates. We do not live in the Netherlands, where a sustained period of 40 years of cycle path building has taken place and where there is widespread engineering knowledge of their construction. We do not live in a society where cyclists’ needs and priorities are taken into account in any genuine sense, with perhaps the odd exception. The norm is ‘squeezing us in’ and ‘making do’.

Indeed, cycling is still seen as a minority activity, despite its clear benefits, and anti-cyclist mentalities pervade the media. One only has to look at the reader comments section underneath any story in the Cambridge News to see that ‘cyclism’ is widespread: complaints that ‘cyclists don’t pay road tax’ (never mind the fact that no such tax has existed since 1937), that ‘cyclists ride on pavements’ (which is a problem of a minority of inconsiderate cyclists, and ignores the large amount of pavement parking and deaths caused by people driving onto a pavement), and so on. Furthermore, councils insist on putting cyclists on pavements, although non-cyclists are not usually aware of this.

The mature trees on Gilbert Road were a strong constraint on the scheme there; chopping them down would have worsened an already tense situation with residents.
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In this environment, it is hard for cycling groups nationally to obtain any real traction against decision-makers, in a society where the car remains king. The argument that ‘the Dutch do it, so why can’t we’ in my view ignores the practical situation that we in the UK find ourselves in. In practice, widespread provision of Dutch-style tracks, which many of us would love to see routinely provided in our towns and cities, simply isn’t going to happen while our streets have on-street car parking – after all, where else will the space come from? But our experiences on Gilbert Road showed how difficult removal of parking can be.

Gilbert Road: case study

Gilbert Road is a case in point. In his opinion piece in this Newsletter, David Hembrow argues passionately for a more Dutch-style solution, one which would undoubtedly have given much greater benefits if it could have been achieved. But let us consider the actual barriers that we faced:

  • Organised, vociferous residents who wanted to retain their privilege of an extra on-street parking space (remember, this is a road where most properties have space to park two vehicles already);
  • An opportunist Councillor (the only one of his political colour in the area) who took up the residents’ cause at the last minute, despite having had months to raise the issues;
  • Lots of people who didn’t want traffic calming for visual or other reasons, resulting in reduced effectiveness of any scheme because slower speeds naturally result in a more cycle-friendly environment;
  • A County Council Cabinet which consists almost entirely of people who live outside Cambridge, who generally seem not to cycle and who in practice are not supportive of a Dutch-style cycling culture;
  • A County Council whose funding is being drained, with officers increasingly stretched owing to cutbacks;
  • A grant from the government’s Cycling Demonstration Town scheme which is small money compared to what has been spent yearly (and for over 40 years) in the Netherlands;
  • The time-limited nature of the grant (the money was only available until the end of March), which, when combined with the stalling tactics employed by some residents, made achieving even a simple scheme difficult;
  • A proportion of the public jumping at any opportunity to make anti-cyclist hostile comments in the Cambridge News even when schemes reduce pavement cycling and clearly improve pedestrian and cycle safety;
  • A County Council officer team who mostly aren’t willing to do radical stuff (the cycling people generally being the exception, but their colleagues higher up have the power, not them!);
  • Engineering challenges (in particular, the unusually steep road camber on Gilbert Road, which makes non-trivial changes much more expensive);
  • A police force who fail to enforce Mandatory Cycle Lanes (i.e. ones that motorists are forbidden to enter) and a legal system which likewise makes this difficult;
  • The fact that wide grass verges and trees are highly valued in Cambridge, and any attempt to remove them meets extremely strong opposition.

No doubt pro-cycling critics of the Gilbert Road scheme would magically have answers to all of these! Sadly, in the real world these are the challenges we faced. These are not excuses to relieve us of the responsibility of pushing more radical proposals, they are the situation we find ourselves in.

The last one (the verges and trees) is a very pertinent point, and is a very strong constraint on the scheme. During our trip to Assen, I immediately spotted the potential for Groningerstraat to be a possible solution for Gilbert Road. Indeed, I wrote as such in Newsletter 78. In fact, I made others wait for half an hour while we measured it out in detail.

However, getting back home, it was clear that the kind of layout used there would be impossible without chopping the trees down. The idea that residents, already against the idea of changing their road to help out cyclists, would somehow take to our case more kindly if for 20 years there would be immature saplings present rather than the beautiful mature trees currently there, is in my view unrealistic. As a campaigning strategy it would have worsened an already tense situation, even though it might have avoided the need to take away the privilege of the third parking space.

It will take more than shiny images of happy Dutch cyclists to win over government or councils who don’t have the political will to prioritise cycling.
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The alternatives looked at for Gilbert Road were many:

  • Netherlands-style, basically reproducing Groningerstraat. This would have meant chopping down the trees and pushing the scheme way beyond the available budget. Perhaps we should have put this idea forward, but the judgement was that politically it would not have been sensible. We certainly would have faced accusations from residents that ‘cyclists are trying to destroy our street’. Also, where is the evidence that British engineers wouldn’t just end up designing a ‘blue signs on a pavement’ scheme?
  • The radical idea of a central cycle lane, suggested by David Earl in Newsletter 85. Issues were raised about problems of emergency vehicles needing to overtake, and generally the issue of children getting into the middle of the road in the first place. One can also imagine the criticisms of ‘using Gilbert Road to experiment with children’s lives’ even though the idea had much to commend it. It certainly would not have been a Dutch-style solution though.
  • Mandatory Cycle Lane – this simply wouldn’t have been enforced, and anyone claiming otherwise would have no evidence to back up their case. We took the view that adding yellow lines would lead to reliable enforcement, which indeed is happening, and we pushed for the lane to be as wide as the County would allow.
  • No provision at all. Good for confident cyclists (though the lane we have achieved should not harm their interests) but not really addressing the demands from parents and children, who are the people for whom most attention is needed in the area.
  • A 2m-wide cycle lane, whether mandatory or advisory. For years we have battled the County Council’s insistence of not allowing the ‘car lane’ to be under 3m wide. (Clearly there is a case of double-standards here in that it’s OK to have narrow cycle lanes but not narrower car lanes.) Opinion within the campaign is also divided because motorists would have to drive in it, diluting messages about not driving in cycle lanes. The only other way to get this width would have been to take some of the verge away, but this would be extremely expensive because of engineering rules that require full foundations to be added. It also would have triggered the tree issue again.
  • Two-way segregated track on one side of the road. In practice, this wouldn’t be segregated because of the continual need for crossings for driveways. This would have all the confusion of the compromised Tavistock Place cycleway in London. We would also be criticised by the more confident cyclists who would feel their ability to cycle on the road was compromised (i.e. the Milton Road Effect), rightly suspicious of off-road provision because of the many examples of poor shared-use paths.

Gilbert Road is a microcosm of the challenges facing cycle campaigners. We undoubtedly have an improved situation here now, but one which could have been a lot better if magically all these challenges could have been overcome.

In my view, we probably achieved as much as we could have at the moment with Gilbert Road. Nice pictures of Dutch cycleways and imaginative publicity, both of which we arguably could have created with more time, would not have overcome the many and serious barriers in our way.

Enter the Embassy

Turning to things nationally, a group of bloggers, seemingly dissatisfied with what they see as weak cycling campaign groups, have formed a new group, the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, modelled after similarly-named continental groups. One of our Committee went along to their inaugural meeting in London to observe its formation. Their description on their website reads:

‘An Embassy, free from the burden of history, legacy and ties, created to work in partnership with fellow organisations and charities in Great Britain, mainland Europe and around the World trading ideas and experiences in how to promote cycling and make cycling infrastructure work in urban and rural contexts.’

It is clear that these are people who, like us and other groups, long for a much more cycle-friendly country. Their presence is helpful in reminding existing groups like ours of the need at all times to portray the real vision of a ‘Copenhagenize’-style cycling culture, something that we as campaigners often end up overlooking owing to the practicalities of detailed campaigning. Fed up with the ‘vehicular cycling movement’ (which is arguably a mischaracterisation of the hierarchy of provision), and instead wanting to see a segregationist approach (Dutch-style cycle tracks), the Embassy approaches the issue from a different angle, seemingly a more PR-orientated angle.

Personally I think this targets the wrong groups, by confusing cycling campaigns with the government and councils, who are the people really at fault. Government and councils who simply don’t like cyclists, or rather, don’t have the political will to prioritise cycling, aren’t easily going to reduce amounts of parking and undertake expensive moving of trees/verges. And yet so far the Embassy presents little in the way of concrete suggestion as to how this could be achieved.

Targeted co-operation or being grumpy?

One pro-cycling critic of Cambridge Cycling Campaign writes on his blog that, for Gilbert Road, ‘This is yet another marginal improvement for cyclists; yes, it’s wider, but it isn’t wide enough. Yes, you’ve got rid of parking there in theory, but you’ve left us with an advisory lane that is free for motorists to enter in to and to be a nuisance in. You’ve given us something that’s a bit better than we had, but which isn’t good enough.’ Seemingly this blames us rather the people who make the decisions and those who are anti-cycling.

Continuing, he asks: ‘When cooperative campaigning fails, what’s left?’ And the answer? ‘Perhaps we need to consider NOT being cooperative. Maybe we need to consider NOT avoiding upsetting people. Perhaps we need to make a nuisance of ourselves. When the best on offer isn’t up to the minimal standards we should accept, what purpose is compromise?’

How exactly does this achieve anything? Shouting from the sidelines and being grumpy will get us nowhere. The public already don’t like ‘whingeing cyclists’. Of course Gilbert Road could have been much more cycle-friendly if the barriers noted above hadn’t existed, and it’s not as if we haven’t tried. But in an environment where so many barriers are put in our way, how, practically, could a different outcome be achieved?

In time, as perceptions of cycling change, Dutch-style provision will be possible, but now it is a massive leap

We could have opposed the eventual Gilbert Road scheme on the basis that 1.7m lanes are below the 2m national standard, and our policy is, rightly, generally to oppose substandard provision. But it is virtually guaranteed we would have been left exactly where we were for at least another ten years, not least because there won’t be any money around for the next five. A significant improvement is better than none. My feeling is that it will help lead to a culture change where more radical ambitions will we possible.


My view is that the Campaign does indeed need to do more to set out in its publicity and campaigning more of the positive cycling imagery and true vision of the kind used by the ‘Copehagenize’ movement. But this has to go hand-in-hand with the nitty-gritty of campaigning, the work that analyses the political, technical, financial and perceptual situation and comes to the most achievable outcome that will improve cycling. That does mean working with Councils when they are willing to listen, but also continuing to criticise (as we often do) when they really could do better. In time, as perceptions of cycling change, Dutch-style provision will be possible. But to go immediately from where we are now to that is a massive leap.

As I have argued, achieving Dutch-style provision requires massive, massive reallocation of roadspace, changes in legal and technical norms, and large amounts of funding. How is this going to be achieved when the enormous opposition to removing a few dozen parking spaces on Gilbert Road took so much work? It is one thing to criticise (albeit not overtly) the work of current groups. But it is another to translate this very laudable vision into practical change.

Martin Lucas-Smith