Last January, I decided to call a meeting to launch the idea of a Cycling Embassy to promote the idea of better cycle infrastructure design and implementation. As the Internet was able to bring home the bicycle riding experiences of people overseas, I started to consider my own experiences campaigning at local and national level and how futile it seemed in the context of a country that’s not only wedded to the motor car but seemed to view any other mode as an obstacle to progress resulting in street designs utterly hostile to anything without an engine. What’s worse is that the infrastructure being designed and built for cyclists in Britain is generally diabolical, benefiting no-one and in many cases creating even more danger and conflict. It would be fair to say that recently becoming a father also changed my worldview. As a child in the 1980’s, my friends and I were able to cycle ridiculous distances on our roads without let, hindrance, harassment and without the need for high-viz clothing, helmets or cameras. As I write this on the threshold of 2012, those days seem like an age away and composed by Enid Blyton. It would appear that others felt the same way too. I was expecting half a dozen people at Look Mum No Hands in Central London (or at least the same amount of people one would expect to see at a local campaign meeting). Many more turned up and a new idea for campaigning was born.
2011 will definitely be remembered as the year of groundwork for the Embassy. After formulating a Mission Statement and Manifesto, a second meeting was held in Manchester and a Board was created. I purchased the CROW Manual for Bicycle Design to gain a more concrete idea of how the Dutch designed such successful infrastructure and my wife still can’t believe how I read it as though it was a Dan Brown airport bestseller. I guess it was a bit like attempting to crack the Da Vinci Code.
In September we held our official launch in London and later that month came a personal highlight. A small group of us headed out to the Netherlands to see exactly what their approach was and to put it in context. We went on a Study Tour of Assen and Groningen led by David Hembrow. I suspected things were a bit different when a colleague and I rolled off the ferry and decided to cycle from Hook of Holland to Rotterdam to catch an ongoing train. We rolled through varying terrain on infrastructure of varying degrees of quality. However, it wasn’t until we got to Rotterdam that we realised that we had just cycled 37 kilometres in regular clothing without breaking a sweat. We had been discussing the conditions as we rode side by side, sometimes laughing at the sheer beautiful simplicity of it all. Where cycle path and road met, motorists stopped for us, even when we didn’t have priority. We rode without needing to be on constant guard and without the constant feeling of being poor, second-class citizens, having to defend the act of riding a bicycle in local newspapers and website comments sections. The Study Tour is going to become an annual feature in the Embassy Calendar and will be open to all.
I came away from the Netherlands with two fundamental thoughts; firstly, the British often assume ‘segregation’ to mean ‘segregating cyclists away from motorists to improve traffic flow’, whereas what the Dutch mean is ‘segregate motor traffic away from people improving equality and quality of movement for everyone’. Secondly, as David was showing us around, it became instantly apparent that the Dutch realised decades ago that the car has its place but the people come first. In a way, it reminded me of a Britain that I remembered – children cycling to school either alone or with parents and grandparents, communities being communities with people walking and cycling to work, the shops or the railway station without rivers of cars and trucks to drown out the sound of conversations and pleasantries being exchanged.
All this was in stark contrast with what was happening back in Britain, and London in particular, where 16 tragic and needless cycling deaths have occurred. Transport for London are no different to me than many Highway Authorities across the land – they have focussed so much on traffic flow models, they’ve lost sight of the areas they are serving. The people have their place but the car comes first and I personally regard this as completely anti-social.
2012 is the year when we start to put all our research into policy and take it to the general public. In January, we are holding a ‘Policy Bash’ to end any ambiguity on what we’re about and what it actually means to ‘Go Dutch’ or ‘Go Danish’ or even ‘Go Brooklyn’. If you’d like to be a part of the process, you’re more than welcome to come along as we formulate over a weekend everything from roundabouts to helmet policy. We shall of course be supporting other organisations where applicable. In particular, we support London Cycling Campaign’s ‘Go Dutch’ campaign for the Mayoral elections, Living Streets 'City of 20' and Sustrans ‘Free Range Kids’. There will be others of course and there is much to salute from the efforts of other more established Cycling Organisations such as CTC and CycleNation.
2012 is of course the year that Britain hosts the Olympics. We of course wish Team GB all the very best and the cycling team in particular. Growing up on the North Downs in Surrey, the road racing around Box Hill is positively mouth watering. However, I would like this to be the year that we connect with all those that don’t want to buy the latest kit to emulate Mark Cavendish or Nicole Cooke. I’d like to reach out to all those that might consider the bicycle to go to a friend's barbeque a couple of miles away and watch the Olympics, or get the bike out the shed to go and buy assorted snacks and cakes to watch the Olympics or even just ride a bicycle to the Olympics (although there’s a story).
Anyway, no organisation is possible without the hard work of dedicated volunteers. I would like to personally give a massive thank you to Sally Hinchcliffe who has worked tirelessly as Embassy secretary, Anthony Cartmell who has created and hosts our wonderful website, Mark Ames, our press officer who has worked tirelessly via his blog ibikelondon, Geoff Rone, our treasurer and board members Joe Dunckley, Chris Page and David Arditti. A massive thank you must also be extended to all those individuals and organisations that have donated money, skills, ideas alongside blogs and tweets.
As you may have noticed, our website has just been upgraded and extra features are going to be added over the next few weeks. The hard work is just beginning. Finally, please take a moment to read about and hopefully sign our petition regarding a potential Women's Institute resolution regarding Mandatory Helmet Use. Although well meaning, such laws always have a negative effect on cycling numbers and we must be striving to create conditions where riding a bike is as easy as riding a bike for all citizens - like any civilised country should do.
I wish you all a very, very Happy New Year. Onwards and Upwards!
Chair, Cycling Embassy of Great Britain