How cycle bloggers shifted mountains

Our board member Sally Hinchcliffe spoke about national campaigning for cycle infrastructure at a recent ESRC event in Newcastle. Her presentation is called “How cycle bloggers shifted mountains”. You can watch Sally’s 15 minutes presentation on the event page (link above) or read the transcript:

Hello, and thank you. I’m going to try and keep this as brief as I can, which means whipping through a lot of slides very quickly as I’ve boiled this down from a much longer talk. For some this may be a familiar story, but the nature of the internet is that things change so fast we forget sometimes what went before. So here is a little snapshot of internet history about how a bunch of bloggers changed – if not the world – at least cycle campaigning.

The cycle track to Damascus

When we founded the Cycling Embassy, everyone seemed to have a ‘road to Damascus’ story and I’m no exception. This is a comment I made 8 years ago on a blog then called ‘Copenhagen Girls on Bikes’.

As someone who cycled in London it seemed to me then terrifying that anyone would ride a bike in a dark coat in a city at night – but even as I commented I realised that was because it was my city that was doing it wrong, not the girl in the photo. It was through blogs like this that I realised that everything I thought I knew about cycling – which was the received wisdom of cycle campaigning at the time – was wrong. The problem was, nobody in the UK seemed to be doing anything about it.

What we had

This is what the internet told us about cycling back in the early part of the century.

‘Crap cycle lanes’ was funny and true – we had all encountered similar provision in the UK. What it didn’t tell us was that there was an alternative...

Good facilities?

The Warrington Cycle Campaign - which ran the Cycling Facility of the Month page - was a classic UK cycle campaign of their day.

What they wanted were all the things which make ‘vehicular’ cycling easier (that is cycling on the road as if you were a car) – but do little for anyone who doesn’t want to play with traffic. These photos here are what they considered to be good facilities for cycling. Wide lanes, ASLs, bus lanes – anything but dedicated space.

Cycle Craft – John Franklin

The Warrington campaign were not alone. This quote is from Cycle Craft, the vehicular cycling bible and the basis of the bikeability training still used in our schools.

Most cycle campaigners believed the evidence they were given – that cycle paths were inherently ‘crap’, paradoxically dangerous, and we shouldn’t be campaigning for them. Instead we should learn how to cycle safely on the roads as they were and encourage others to do the same, to achieve safety in numbers.

Not all cycle campaigns were as hard core as Warrington, and a few were working towards continental-style facilities, but they were in the minority. Cycle Nation, the ‘umbrella body’ for local campaigns, was explicitly vehicularist in outlook at the time.

CTC campaigns (pre 2012)

Cycle campaigning also lacked real ambition. According to the ‘way back machine’ these were the campaigns the CTC were working on up to around 2010.

All laudable campaigns but very limited in their ambitions. Only ‘vote bike’ had anything that tackled road design, and only in a very limited way. This lack of ambition was not just confined to the CTC – most campaign groups had similar aims, out of a mix of pragmatism (we’ll never get Dutch cycling provision so why ask for it) and the conviction that where bikes belonged was on the road, and that all we had to do was somehow get more people cycling and all would be well.

‘The great split of 1997’

Even those who were sympathetic to the idea of Dutch style provision in theory argued that asking for it would rock the boat.

Campaigners were largely still fighting the battles of the 90s and when bloggers started standing up and demanding dedicated bike infrastructure it was other cyclists – rather than drivers – who shouted them down.

The Hierarchy of Provision

Cycle campaigns had largely united behind support for the Hierarchy of Provision (HoP), which was built into the UK cycling design guidelines.

Note here that ‘reallocation of carriageway space’ can mean bus lanes, widened near-side lanes and on-road cycle lanes; Copenhagen and Dutch-style tracks simply weren’t considered.

‘Mobile speed bumps’

This led to us campaigning for things which actually made cycling worse. Because of the HoP, speed reduction and traffic management became the most practical options. So roads and lanes were narrowed, bringing cyclists into direct conflict with traffic, with terrifying results. Bikes were actually supposed to calm traffic, by acting as ‘mobile speed bumps’ in front of vehicles which couldn’t safely overtake them. It didn’t work for anyone, and cyclists voted with their feet, either taking to the pavements or finding other routes.

The cycling revolution in full

The result?

Cycling has stagnated for decades in the UK, with the cost of petrol having more to do with cycling rates than anything either governments or campaigners have done.

The blogs that changed everything

In one year, from 2007-8, five blogs started that would change everything. Most people who had a similar conversion moment will cite one of these five blogs – the granddaddies of the ‘infrastructuralist’ world.

  • The blog that launched a thousand imitations ... Mikael Colville-Andersen, the marketing genius behind the glitz of Cycle Chic,…
  • started Copenhagenize, a more serious blog analysing what it was that made ‘chic’ cycling possible – the infrastructure that allows girls to cycle in black coats at night and not fear for their lives...
  • Then there was Amsterdamize (I actually just put this slide in because it’s my favourite cycling image of all time)
  • The patron saint of the Cycling Embassy, David Hembrow moved his family to the Netherlands because he could see no future for UK cycle campaigning. His incredibly detailed dissections of the top-class infrastructure around Assen and Groningen patiently dismantled all the reasons people give for why the Dutch cycle (‘it’s flat ...’) and why UK excuses for why we don’t do the same just won’t wash
  • And then there was Freewheeler. While the Dutch and Danish blogs showed us what could be done, Freewheeler dismantled the approaches that UK cycle campaigners had been trying for so long. Angry and prolific and relentless, he or she gave no quarter. Many readers became angry too and they all seem to have started blogs of their own

UK bloggers

Blogging was undergoing a bit of a boom at the time – and more and more blogs started cropping up in the UK about cycling – and many were or became explicitly campaigning related, influenced by what they had read or knew about Dutch and Danish cycling. They began to link to each other and feed off each other, here and abroad. Many were thoughtful, detailed and often increasingly angry not just about the state of the roads but the lack of any political will both either politicians or other cyclists to do anything about it.

The Accidental Cycle Campaign Jan 2011

Jim Davies of the LoFidelity Bicycle Club, one of these blogs, may have started the Cycling Embassy by accident. After a series of impassioned posts about the failures of UK cycle campaigning, he proposed setting up a Cycling Embassy of Great Britain and got such a huge response from blog readers it actually happened. After a meeting in January 2011 at Look Mum No Hands (in an atmosphere that was like a cross between a revival meeting and a session of the AA) a group of us agreed to formally create an organisation. Since then, many local campaigns, new or existing, have started to identify themselves as ‘Cycling Embassy style’ campaigns.

The Battle of Blackfriars

At the same time, Danny Williams at Cyclists in the City along with Mark Ames of ibikelondon, were concentrating on the issue of Blackfriars Bridge. TfL planned to make changes to the bridge that would make it substantially more hostile to cycling. As anger rose, people came out from behind their computers and took to the streets. The first mass ride – billed as a ‘flashmob’ – took place in May 2011 with just 24hrs notice. 300 cyclists blocked the bridge at rush hour.

When TfL went ahead with its changes, 2,000 rode in protest in August and 2,500 in October. Crucially the London Cycling Campaign came on board and even drew up alternative designs which were radical (but not radical enough for some!)

The Superhighways that weren’t

London’s mayor, Boris ‘keep your wits about you’ Johnson was not at the time convinced of the need for separated space for cycling. His much vaunted ‘cycle superhighways’ had turned out to be a vehicularist cyclist’s dream – instead of offering clear space for cycling, often all they offered were squares of paint on the road encouraging bikes to mix with traffic, sometimes on very hostile roads. Ten years before, they might have been welcomed, but a newly educated and demanding force of bloggers were not prepared to accept this sort of thing anymore. When cyclists started being killed on the superhighways, the protests took on a new edge. Deaths were happening on junctions where bloggers (and others) had criticised the designs – now there was anger at being proved right. In February 2012, The Times took up its ‘Cities fit for cycling’ campaign after one of its journalists was critically injured. When drawing up its manifesto, the paper consulted bloggers including Mark Ames and Danny Williams – and also the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain. The bloggers were now on the front pages of the heart of the establishment.

Forensic analysis

Cyclists had been protesting about road deaths for years, but now they had a positive alternative to offer. TfL’s proposals were increasingly scrutinised and people started asking for Dutch style provision rather than UK style ASLs or painted bike lanes.

Blogs like the Vole O’Speed and Pedestrianise London began to pick apart proposals for cycling infrastructure in great detail, referring to best practice in the Netherlands. Consultation exercises were inundated with detailed objections to poor design. We were no longer willing to laugh off crap cycle lanes. We wanted good ones.

How the Dutch got their Cycle Paths

If you are at all involved in cycle campaigning these days, someone will send you a link to this 2011 video, possibly even your mum.

From the Bicycle Dutch website, made by Mark Wagenbuur who originally collaborated with David Hembrow, it explains how the Dutch managed to row back from the same car-centric path we followed in the sixties, and campaigned for a bike-friendly alternative.

The Big Rides

Encouraged by the Dutch example, the mass rides got bigger (and better organised) and started to attract more than commuters – children, older people, women – a carnival atmosphere.

In Scotland Pedal on Parliament (POP) sprang out of the grass roots (another bunch of bloggers) to take the ride to the devolved Scottish Government, creating a national-level Scottish cycling campaign for the first time. In April 2012, there were simultaneous rides in London and Edinburgh - POP is now in the process of planning its 5th annual mass ride.

Electoral muscle

Attention soon moved to the ballot box. ‘Londoners on Bikes’ campaigned during the London 2012 mayoral election for candidates to pledge to ‘go Dutch’. The CTC and LCC adopted Space For Cycling for local elections in 2014 and 2015, with an explicitly infrastructuralist focus.

In Scotland, We Walk, We Cycle, We Vote is an umbrella campaign for most Scottish cycling organisations (including Sustrans, Cycling Scotland) for the 2016 Holyrood elections

The cycling vote probably won’t swing elections, but it is at least considered important enough for politicians to pay lip service to …

A New Dawn?

When I first wrote this presentation this image was a concept drawing – now it’s a reality, with new segregated tracks appearing in London this year that are light years away from the blue paint ‘superhighways’ of old.

There was funding too – a total of almost £1bn for London, while in Scotland funding has gone up year on year (often announced or hinted at at POP) Cycle Ambition Funds were awarded to cities such as Leeds, Newcastle and Manchester. Both TfL and the DfT have said that bloggers and newly united campaigners being much clearer about what they wanted help to make the case with politicians. Andrew Gilligan specifically cited ibikelondon and Cyclists in the City – as well as the Times and the Evening Standard – as bringing about the change of heart.

A powerful articulate force

Cyclists have become the most articulate and organised of the ‘vulnerable road users’ – that’s motorbikers, pedestrians and cyclists to you and me. Deaths in London and elsewhere are now marked by ‘die ins’ by groups such as the uncompromisingly named ‘Stop Killing Cyclists’, keeping deaths at the top of the news agenda.

But as plans for cycling became bolder, in London at least, campaigners have found themselves on an unaccustomed side of the argument. Groups such as the We Support Enfield and Waltham Forest Mini Holland campaigns, and Cycling Works are actually defending the plans of the powers that be, marshalling support for space for cycling against a noisy backlash.

Blogging social media now

Every week I compile the Cycling Embassy blog roundup and it’s a useful and interesting resource (especially for a view of what is going on internationally) with new blogs starting all the time – but increasingly the conversation happens elsewhere, on Twitter, on Facebook (it’s notable that the pro Mini Holland groups are largely organised directly through Facebook), on YouTube (for the helmet camera cyclists) and probably some other form of social media I’m too old even to understand. Hopefully this means the message will reach out beyond the traditional cycle campaigner who is still largely male, white and middle class, even if he’d no longer be seen dead in Lycra. The Embassy view has become mainstream – but only in the tiny world that is cycle campaigning.

What’s next?

We have changed our own minds – but now we want to change the whole of the UK, not just places like London. A quote from after the Scottish referendum campaign has stuck in my head. It comes from someone who had mistaken online engagement with like-minded people for actually changing hearts and minds. As he put it:

“We thought we were talking over our fences – it turned out we were shouting into our own broom cupboards”

Campaigners now have a clear vision of what they want, but it’s one that’s much harder to achieve than the old consensus would ever have been. Taking space away from cars is hard, and if we’re going to make the case for it we need to go beyond our own community and take the argument to the rest of the country. And that will be a much bigger mountain to move.

Thank you (applause)


Very interesting piece, describing how cycling campaigning has evolved. As I understand it, unless the government increases its spend on cycling, from the miserly less than £1.50 per head of population in England to £10 per head - for starters - then cycling is going nowhere fast. 

And if that's the case, the best we can hope for will one offs, like London's segregated east west cycling route now under construction,  and other one-off cycle routes, such as in Bradford. But nothing approaching the integrated city cycle routes needed.


I emailed the DfT and my MP recently about the lack of funding. Both mentioned that the investment part of the Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy is to be announced in the summer of 2016, so that might be an improvement. I'm not holding my breath though. Even if £10 per person per year is spent, we'll still be falling behind the Dutch and the Danes, but it would be much better than peanuts.

From 2007, up to the publication of "Waltham Forest Cycling Action Plan" and "Waltham Forest Cycling Strategy 2012-2015"

Then it probably became a campaign

Now contrast the 'Mini-Holland', which was pretty controversial, to say the least !

It would be hard to prove cause-and-effect, but it is unlikely to be co-incidence.

That was the blog I referred to as 'Freewheeler' (the name of the anonymous user who wrote Crap Walking and Cycling in Waltham Forest). Definitely one of the most influential bloggers of their time

AKA TownMouse