As we move into a new year, the temptation is always to look forward and say how things need to change over the coming 12 months. But as I think about the challenges facing us in 2018, I feel like what I want to say has been said at the start of every year this century.
We need to change the way we live our lives and we need to change the way we approach many of our everyday activities.
That’s us – me, you, the person in the street.
That’s you – our political leaders.
It is amazing how many times this can be said and how we are increasingly being immersed in images and descriptions of the impact that our decisions – as individuals, communities and whole societies – are having on our world and on the people around us. One would have thought that this would shake all of us into making conscious changes; after all, we all care enough and are sufficiently socially responsible to call 999 if we see a building on fire yet we seem content to ignore the warnings that our planet is currently on a path towards change that will fundamentally alter all life upon it. Of course, it is socially acceptable to hide behind the defensive shield of “its too big a problem for me to make any difference.” The problem is, as we all know, that we seemingly take this as tacit permission to forget the issue and actively go on making things worse.
We need to take responsibility for all of our actions, whether it is recycling, energy consumption or how we move about. The more we do that, the more this becomes the accepted norm and ‘copping out’ becomes socially unacceptable. And here’s the thing – none of this is hard.
As a cyclist and a planner concerned about our obsession with the car as a major cause of our collective societal contribution to global warming, 2017 has been a frustrating year. As I wrote in my previous blog (‘Good planning can only do so much’), the Government appears to be more interested in suggesting rather unhelpfully that driverless cars will help to solve all these problems. Not only is this unlikely to be the case but it won’t help relieve the burden on the NHS caused by our unwillingness to build exercise into our everyday patterns of movement. Meanwhile, the wider anti-cycling culture in Britain seemed to become more entrenched in 2017 (the positive spin on this is that more people are cycling). We rightly saw the conviction of Charlie Alliston over the death of Kim Briggs due to him riding a bike which was not legal on our roads. What was depressing was the negative stereotypes this invited the ‘anti’ lobby to voice about cycling, reaching such a crescendo that transport minister Jesse Norman wrote to cycling groups asking them to remind riders of their responsibilities on the road. The fact that cyclists account for 0.2% of the deaths on UK roads and that, in the court next door to the Alliston trial, a driver was convicted for killing a pedestrian and then fleeing the scene yet this did not make the national news, was totally drowned out by the invective aimed at cyclists.
This tweet sums up much of the feeling of cyclists:
‘Cyclists, wear bright clothes' ‘Cyclists, don’t look like goonish lycra louts’
‘Cyclists, don’t hold me up by being slow’
‘Cyclists, don’t be a menace going fast’
‘Cyclists, don’t hog the middle of the road’
‘Cyclists, don’t hide away at the edge’
The old game of victim-blaming
— David Arditti (@VoleOSpeed) December 29, 2017
Yet we continue to champion what other countries have demonstrated is a cheap, efficient, healthy, fun way to get around that actively helps to minimise the impact we are having on our planet.
And maybe, just maybe, a tipping point is being coming into view. Recently I was undertaking a study on infrastructure needs for a local planning authority area containing a large town. Its traffic modelling showed that, even before you account for the substantial growth in housing and employment being planned for, over 100 of its road junctions were at capacity with no potential solutions. 100 junctions. I doubt you could undertake a journey of 3 miles anywhere across this town and not hit at least half a dozen of these junctions. It occurred to me that maybe some of the bolder political leaders will now be prepared to stand up and tell the local electorate – many of whom sit in the town’s traffic jams every day whilst making their 5-10 mile journey to work – that there are no solutions. If you want to sit in these jams then no one can stop you, but do not complain because no one is going to try to make matters any better for motorists. Instead, they are going to invest this money in genuine alternatives to the car. If they then follow through with this then eventually the penny might drop and people might realise that 30 minutes on a bike twice a day on the way to and from work is a lot more pleasurable than sitting in a traffic jam, morning and evening.
This becomes even more of an imperative for local politicians given the Government’s approach to tackling air pollution. In simple terms, this is summed up as, ‘over to you local authorities’. Most authorities don’t have much by way of resources to do anything meaningful and so the first thing talked about is charging people to drive into town centres. This is a textbook neoliberal response to a very human problem because charging simply means that those with the ability to pay are effectively licenced to pollute. Yet perhaps the penny will drop that investment in cycling, walking and public transport infrastructure will kill two birds with one stone. And those making these tough decisions can know that it is okay to say it – the congestion on our roads is an insoluble problem (a fact most of us have known for some time but has always traditionally been drowned out by mainstream media reinforcing the hegemony of the private car). Except the problem is now so bad that it is surely politically acceptable to acknowledge this as such, even in urban areas outside our largest cities.
Of course the naysayers will list a long string of reasons why this can’t and won’t work. There may be howls of anguish from the most entrenched motorists that we cyclists regularly experience on the roads and marvel at how settling into the drivers’ seat of a car seems to make them think that threatening others with two tonnes of speeding metal is acceptable.
Go on, tell me again the excuse that "your city is not Amsterdam" and "cycling is in the Dutch genes"
~Zeilstraat, Amsterdam (1970s) pic.twitter.com/PXAIXzAhU3
— Cycling Professor (@fietsprofessor) September 9, 2017
Contrary to the belief of many, the Dutch were a society in the 1970s where most people drove, few cycled and consequently the roads of the Netherlands were gridlocked like ours are today. They reached a tipping point and actively chose as a society to do something about this, showing what is possible where there is a will. Our politicians always tell us that we are going to make these changes and, in doing so, will become the ‘best in the world’. Let’s hope 2018 is the year when we make a start along that journey. There is too much at stake not to and every single one of us can play a part.