Thursday, 18 June 2015

Cambridge - The Reality Bubble, Cycling and Campaigning

Cambridge is a bustling little city. Many weekends in summer there's some kind of event on, sometimes there are several - and this was the case a couple of weeks back when we had both the Town and Country festival and Arbury Carnival.

I was surprised not to see folk from Cambridge Cycling Campaign with a stall at either - there were many other local groups at both events and they're such regulars at these things that its always odd not to see them. I'll confess I was also a little relieved the Campaign weren't there - I always used to be nervous I'd run in to (then) Councillor Rosenstiel at the Liberal Democrat stall, but I think he kept his head down in this part of the city after putting his foot in it once too often - and I worry rather that the disgraced ex-councillor will turn up at a Cambridge Cycling Campaign stall and I'll end up being one of those too disgusted to stop and talk. As it was, I ended up having a lively discussion with the LibDems at the Carnival, when they made the quite unlikely choice to defend Rosenstiel after I expressed relief he wasn't there. I remain contemptuous of anyone not willing to distance themselves from him.

But this got me thinking about the Cambridge Reality Bubble. Jokingly its referred to as a student thing, but Cambridge is a strange city in many other ways too. I wonder, is a bland acceptance of people acting in ways that would get them ostracised in other cities also part of the same phenomenon, allowing us to have a broad based cycling culture? Is Cambridge Britain's only cycling city not just because of the influence of the University, but in part because this city is, by UK standards, barking mad? Do people cycle here because they're not negatively judged, because you can identify as a 'person who cycles' without that being a negative? 

I've touched upon Cambridge Eccentrics before. Several times, in fact. Its not a city where there are a few eccentrics to be aware of, its a town where you just don't bat an eye if a chap walks past dressed as Russian doll, where performance art meets parody on the streets of the city and no one really cares. A town where if you cycle throuh with a giant dragonfly scultpure on your back the only comment will be 'Quick, somebody call an entomologist!' So is Cambridge unique as a cycling city in Britain because fewer people feel the need to 'perform' socially? Is Cambridge a cycling city because its somehow less prone to people worrying about people judging them on appearaces (whether they drive, WHAT they drive, how they dress etc.) than other cities? Free of the social imperative to be judge on what they drive, do Cambridge residents more often than not freely choose to cycle because its a more practical option? And as such, is the problem we face in getting the rest of the UK to cycle not one of identity rather than infrastructure?

The Cambridge 'reality bubble' certainly goes way beyond Reality Checkpoint  these days - both spatially (encompassing the wider city and surrounding hi-tech industrial sites) and conceptually (its not just the University now - if it ever was). Do we simply have to accept that this city will remain an outlier both for cycling uptake, and for accepting a range of behaviours that just wouldn't be condoned elsewhere? I don't like either possible answer to that.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Sickening Road Rage Incident

Well, if you keep up with cycling news in the UK you can't fail to have heard about this incident. If by some miracle you haven't come across this, here's what everyone seems to be talking about - its not pretty, and it sure as hell is NOT SAFE FOR WORK. 

There is little I can add to this story that has not been extensively said elsewhere.

But lets step back and ask whats really happening - passing a cyclist that closely is an aggressive act - if you nearly kill someone with a car you need to expect them to be pretty full up with adrenaline. So, yeah, the cyclist responded with some profanity - not unreasonable considering he was under attack - the driver saw the cyclist and knowingly passed very close, pulling in ever further in response to the cyclists angry, terrified shouting before getting out of the car to remove any uncertainty we may have as to his intentions - he says himself that he'd break the cyclists neck if there weren't witnesses.

But look at the guys face as he gets out and approaches the cyclist - to my eye this isn't just fight or flight response, and his initial insistence that the cyclist should be in the cycle lane isn't just aggressive, its dismissive. He's not taking the risks to himself in this situation seriously - he's disgusted by the cyclist who has, from the outset, been the victim of his wrath.

We need to look further than this guys anger, we need to get past this simple act of aggression and view this as what it really is - status and entitlement. He's better than the cyclist just because. His seriously threatening behaviour is justifiable because its a cyclist. In his mind we can act that way to cyclists because they're cyclists - you can do that to cyclists who are not breaking any rules or giving you the slightest problem, cyclists are already in the wrong. Look, he's not alone. 

Bluntly there are two things we need to see to stop this happening. Firstly, if there are cycle facilities (and there really should be) they have to be good enough to use - even lethally bad cycle facilities get us bullied for not using them (in Cambridge we call this the Milton Road Effect). But its not jut about cycle facilities, its about hate.

This guy was aggressive to the other guy because he was on the road, on a bike. Bluntly, the cyclist had done nothing wrong, the aggressor initiated this with his ridiculously dangerous overtake and compounded it with truly threatening driving and a brutal tirade of threatening abuse - all because the other guy was a cyclist. We must put pressure on our MP's and the Police and CPS to treat these as what they are - hate crimes. These incidents must be prosecuted in the same way we'd prosecute crimes based on ethnicity or sexuality hate - they come from the same pit of human psychology, and until we treat them as such we'll see no reduction in their frequency.

£90 fine, apparently. Not enough. Not nearly enough. 

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Resigned from Cambridge Cycling Campaign

I've got to look the guy in the mirror square in the eye.

And if I'm a member of an organisation with this guy on the committee, I can't be.

I joined the Campaign only last year, specifically to vote for their Space for Cycling document

Not assaulting a child in the street is a more important ethic for me than campaigning for better cycle infrastructure. Call me weird but that is how I'm built, if I can help it I won't put my name to something Colin Rosenstiel runs - even the Liberal Democrats wouldn't have him as a councillor any more, but Cambridge Cycling Campaign don't share their weeding criteria.

I've been pondering this for quite a long time, and I've become sickened at my own inactivity. No more.

So, membership card destroyed and email sent resigning membership.

I don't anticipate a cascade of membership resignations from an organisation which, like most, is made up of members who mostly don't get involved - this isn't about them. Its about the accusing looks from the guy in the mirror who knows better than I do that you can't betray your conscience and still be a good man.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Cycling caste? You're disgusting.

I rode up past a lorry to the ASL (advance stop line - the little red box at the front in some junctions, with a bike painted in it, to give cyclists a head start) on Gilbert Road this morning only to see that the lorry was also filling the box. So I joined the cyclist who was already in front of the ASL, and another two folk on bikes joined us there. I looked back and up at the driver to make sure that he'd seen I was indicating right, and he met my gaze with a cold, visceral look. Like he'd just put his hand in cold jelly or something - his gaze was past hostility and distaste and into pure, undisguised disgust.

The disgust response is, psychologically, a fascinating phenomenon which gives us a clear physical cue to show its happening - a curled lip, the wrinkled nose, something hard to avoid showing when you're truly disgusted. Go on, open the lid on a stinking wheelie bin on a hot day and tell me how you react - you may even feel the urge to vomit, there's a real, physical response there. Because you identify it as unclean you are disgusted by it - and this is true in social settings when talking about human beings too. The disgust response is a visceral human response and it is how social groups justify excluding outsiders - it is a fundamental part of how the caste system worked (and, sadly, sometimes still works) - its part of racism, of bigotry of nearly all kinds. That dirty things disgust us tends us to view things that disgust with unease, often as if they are dirty - this is an unavoidable association, its conventional, uncontroversial psychology. 

And this is what we're up against as cyclists. Its not about us being 'different' or just a social out group - I put it to you that in a car obsessed society, where we're judged not only by what we drive but whether we drive, by making the choice not to drive somewhere we're seen as worse than social outliers - we're seen as having a lower status, as a lower caste of people fit for derision, for hate, even as fair targets for violence. Or, at least, people you can get away with threatening.

The results of this are varied, but include the fact that the death of a cyclist isn't often treated seriously, and even paper thin excuses will be seen as credible when assessing what went wrong. That the other guy on a bike acts to dehumanise - he's different, its therefore partly his fault. 'Well if you hadn't been riding a bike it wouldn't have happened'. It is considered fair and reasonable to defend horrific hate speech against cyclists with 'but they deserve it' or 'thats just my opinion', in the same way that homophobic or racist language used to be used. Groups who 'disgust' us are seen as broadly representative of each other - they're stereotyped by bad actions of even a tiny minority - and the only difference between this being viewed as prejudice or 'just an opinion' is how widely this disgust is shared.

Look over your shoulder from the advanced stop lines. Look at the driver behind you, as you signal which way you're going try to make eye contact. Yeah, most of them don't mind, most of them pay little attention, but just look out for the odd ones who snarl, who curl their lip and sneer at you. We disgust them because, in their eyes, we are disgusting.

The answer to this isn't to sort our own lot out - it isn't us creating this problem. We could ride like saints nearly all the time and we'd still disgust them. The answer? We need to be what the politically correct movement was. We need to humanise cyclists by not accepting any attempt to do the opposite - it must become socially unacceptable to 'other' cyclists.

Where to even begin?

Friday, 17 April 2015

Fair and Proportionate Road Safety

Motons portray cycling advocates as somehow unbalanced in their view of road safety and, from that, imply that our joy from being on two wheels somehow unhinges our minds. Far be it from me to state that unlike them our brains are far enough from our arses to not be thus influenced, even when riding on cobblestones, but I would like to address 'fair and proportionate.

Lets keep it simple - lets assume that the attention given to cycling and motoring should be proportional to how people are killed by cyclists/motorists. 2,000 people or so are killed by motorists, per year, in the UK. Sometimes more, sometimes less, but its a good round figure to start with. While each such death is an unmitigated tragedy, statistically this pales into insignificance against the number of people killed by the air pollution, which largely results from our road traffic, estimated to be 60000 or more per year.

There are numerous articles linking obesity to driving, I shan't bore you with endless links, but this is a phenomenon visible across the developed world. The less physical activity we take, as a society, the fatter we collectively get - and the most direct correlation is found in motoring. More than 30000 obesity related deaths occur in the UK every year - but lets be generous and say that despite the evidence of a direct causal link between driving and taking next to no exercise, we'll only blame 25% of those deaths on driving.

So driving costs us, give or take, 69,500 lives. Per year. In the UK. Yeah, I know you're going to say 'but some of that pollution comes from Europe!'. It does, and much of ours blows over there too, and the balance is absurdly in our favour with the prevailing wind in this part of the world. 

Now on to cycling. It transpires that cyclists kill so few people you can barely find them - its something in the region of 1 per year. 

So just in terms of body count, if we're going to take a proportionate view of people dying as a result of road transport, we should pay 1/69,500th of the attention to cyclists. And the rest to motorists. To put that another way if we put out a message about road deaths, once per day, every day of the year, then we should talk about the harm cyclists do once every 190 years, concentrating on motorists all of the rest of the time.

The truth is that anyone asking for such a discussion to be 'proportionate' while insisting that we talk about cyclists is an idiot, a bigot, or both. Don't be suckered in to accepting that 'there are faults on both sides' or 'yes we should be more responsible'. If they drive, and you cycle, you have the moral high ground.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Cambridgeshire Hates Cyclists.

Two things prompted the rather provocative title above.

At lunchtime, I was on Fitzroy Street. Its pedestrianised from 10-4, but you do get some delivery vehicles and the odd cyclist there. Two PCSO's walked right past a van coming down the road towards them, making a beeline for a cyclist who was well behind the van, stopping him and making him dismount.

I've got to ask, in what universe is it worthwhile Cambridgeshire Constabulary ignoring a van driving through a pedestrianised area and instead targetting a cyclist? Had the cyclist been careering down the road bowling babies out of the way they'd have had a point - but he was going more slowly than the van. It wasn't even particularly busy - the cyclist presented no risk, to anyone, even himself. I can only assume that they've been specifically tasked with dealing with 'antisocial cyclists', and that they'll continue to ignore cars on the pavement and in pedestrian areas, as they always have. Cambridgeshire Constabulary have some great folk doing hard jobs, but both institutionally and culturally they are a barrier to safe cycling. And their commissioner, an old-school Tory foisted on us by fendlanders who now seem to veer from Tory to UKIP in the political spectrum, is right at the heart of this.

The second event requires a brief history of the finest example of Cambridgeshires near-legendary clusterfuck attitude to transport.

We used to have a railway line, to St. Ives, and while it closed to passengers in the '70s it was still intact and used for freight until the 1990s. More recently its been dug up and replaced with a pig ugly concrete gutter through which buses can travel more slowly than trains did even in the 1800s, averaging a slower speed than the parallel A14, but at the cost of over £150 million. As a result it hasn't particularly lowered journey times and hasn't reduced traffic on the A14 at all. More recently, because transport thinking is so progressive and joined up, we've seen approval to open a new railway station at one end of the old railway route - so we've got a train line ripped up and replaced by a bus, with one end of it having a new train station. Naturally they're making sure that cycling or walking to this station is as shit as possible, although Cambridge Cycling Campaing made some suggestions for improving this. As of last update, it looks like any concessions to anyone not in a car amount to polishing the turd of an access route rather than flushing it down and starting again. Make no mistake, if you want to get to this station by bike our planners aim to punish you for it.

Still with me? They built a vastly expensive gutter for buses to go more slowly than they can on the road, instead of a train line, and they're opening a train station at one end of it so having a railway line there would clearly have been a dreadful idea. Best of all, they did it like circus trained monkeys. It was done so badly that 5 minutes after ploughing an ugly ditch down the route, they've got to do it again. Yes, thats right, its been built so badly lots of it needs digging into and fixing, at another massive (tens of millions of pounds) cost, because it seems that its getting dangerous.

There is one saving grace to this insanity - the cycle track alongside it. This ought to be a truly brilliant facility - and it is, for the 10 months or so per year that its not flooded, and so long as we ignore the chicane barriers across it that exist to stop motons ruining it. Yes, thats right, sections of it are under-water for a significant amount of time. Yes, it was designed that way rather than with raised sections on stilts because its only cyclists and we don't matter. No, that wouldn't be acceptable for any other mode of transport. They wouldn't even consider that for a road, or any kind of pedestrian access route.

But its busy when its dry. Except of course that they close it with little notice, no signs before you get to the closed bits, and no diversions of any sort. I suggested via. twitter that signs were needed, that diversions should be put in place, but no. Our County Council only view this now as a 'maintenance track' - why would you tell cyclists you're going to be closing a maintenance track?

Bottom line? Even when they sell us a facility like this, they don't look at it as transport. To argue it was built for cyclists would be to tell a bare-faced lie. They view it as an add on, an inessential thing you can close at short notice where the users time doesn't matter enough to provide advice on alternatives, where there's no need to signpost to users that they should get off the route and go a different way. I met cyclists lost at the closure in Histon on Saturday, not sure where to go and with no knowledge of where the route would open again, and I'm sure there were riders coming in from the other side also finding that there was no notice given for any kind of detour. 

Bluntly, Cambridgeshire County Council is run by and for motorists who do not believe that cycling is a real form of transport - you wouldn't close even a quiet suburban route without signs being up for weeks warning people. So why is it okay to close a major cycling route like this? I accept, closures can happen on any facility - but this was planned in advance, and a clear decision was taken to ignore requests to signpost this in any way.

I conclude that Cambridgeshire County Council don't give a tuppenny toss for cyclists. And this is the irony of cycling in Cambridge - UK's cycling capital is at the heart of a county that is hostile to cycling. 

Enough of this. I put it to you, Cambridgeshire County Council and Cambridgeshire Constabulary, that we'd all be better off if you were just honest. Enough of pretending you're on our side - you're not. You never have been. Be open about that and we can discuss what we all really want to change. But at present we're all involved in a valueless debate because while you don't respect our views or our mode of transport, you're not open about this, you pretend to listen while ploughing on with an evidently anti-cyclist agenda. Enough. Stop wasting our time and out yourselves as what you really are - then we may be able to make progress.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

'Antisocial' Cycling - is it even a thing?

Politicians like branding things 'antisocial'. From the local town or parish Concillor all the way to the Prime Minister, 'antisocial' is a really handy term for them to use.

The thing about 'antisocial' is that it is marvelously non-specific, to the point where if someone is using it you can fairly question whether they mean to convey any kind of specific acts at all. What it means varies according to who you are and what your priorities are, and 'antisocial behaviour' has been used for everything from children playing ball games through to assault. Definitions that rely on how a 'victim' may feel (such as the Cambridge version which defines it as behaviour that leads people to feel alarmed, harassed or distressed) are so broad as to be completely valueless - unless someone in the chain of command you're reporting to shares your personal unease you have no hope of getting anywhere. Have you repeatedly felt harassed or endangered by motorists on a particular road passing you too close? Is it the same subset of drivers every day? Go on, report it as antisocial behaviour, see how far you get.

This subjective term is both meaningless and useless unless the organisation handling your complaint shares that subjective viewpoint. It is also an ugly, insidious meme that has spread through our society, masquerading as a respectable position that merely allows a geriarchy to impose their values on those who don't have the time to turn up at endless local political fora and fight them.

Which leads me to 'antisocial cycling'. What the hell does it even mean?

Well apparently it means riding in pedestrian areas. Which is sometimes, but not always, illegal, but also encouraged by the guidance that came from the home office minister who first imposed fixed penalty notices. It also means trying like mad to stay alive or just unable to work out where the hell you're meant to be riding when the cycle routes aren't labelled in any meaningful way. Or, as often as not, it means cyclists riding on shared use routes they're both entitled and encouraged to use. Maybe it means cyclists who are just riding perfectly legally on the road. Ironically it also means riding socially. In fact anti-social cycling means whatever the feck whoever the hell wants it to mean, and the terminology is chosen specifically to demonise cyclists who are, at very worst, a minor annoyance in comparison with the un-policed trouble caused by those using nearly any other form of transport.

Even by the rather strange definitions by which our police service defines 'antisocial' behaviour cyclists are responsible for almost no antisocial behaviour. Actual 'antisocial' cycling is a myth. Its a fairytale. Its not a real thing.

'Antisocial' just means we've irritated them - this is something we do every single time we saddle up and go out for a ride. And you know what? If someone uses this term, they're as likely to follow it with venomous anti-cyclist sentiment as anything else.

Whenever you encounter this phrase, challenge it. Don't accept it. Require that the remit of what it means be specified - and if that isn't forthcoming, in detail, then you know you're dealing with a common or garden hater.