Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Vehicular Cycling, the Right to Ride: who is the CTC for?

I've just read Freewheeler's post, "Lorries killing cyclists: what is to be done?"

This is a great summary of the situation - there's a real sense of energy, and understandable frustration, from his writing, and it really pins down the issues.

I wish I was in the UK at the moment, to help with the good work of the Cycling Embassy. As it is, I'm out of the UK until June - I hope to get involved once I'm back.

I say this as someone who rides a bike, who loves to ride, who feels like the world is a better place when people can get from A to B by bike. That it should be one of the most obvious choices in the world. And that the bicycle, although not the whole solution, is a necessary element in any better world.

I'm also a card-carrying CTC member. To ride a bike in the UK, I've become a "cyclist".

After 6 years of riding the bike, I'm now a fully-fledged vehicular cyclist - out of necessity rather than by choice. With my helmet and my Saturn yellow coat, I can get out there and "share the road", even when other road users aren't too keen to share it with me. My lifestyle has adapted to include VC.

I've had my near misses. One collision, where I was rear-ended by a motorist on a country road. So far, nothing serious, nothing to stop me cycling, or worse.

But VC is a choice, however forced, that I am able to make. Most others, not so young or fit or brave (or foolhardy), can't begin to choose this way of life. And why should they have to? I wouldn't wish VC on my worst enemy, let alone family or friends.

When both my partner and my parents started cycling to work, I felt an immense sense of happiness, joy, even pride. Actions speak louder than words, I thought. I'd set a good example. It wasn't cheery comments, along the lines of "you'd have to cycle for 3000 years, on average, before you'd be hit by a car!" that had made the difference. Instead, all they'd needed was to see that it was possible, and they made the "right" choice for themselves.

Once your loved ones take up cycling, a funny thing happens. They're exposed to the world of crap, the indifference, the utter criminal negligence on the roads that you've been weathering for years. They can drive, they know the rules of the road, yet they're shaken by their experience. They come home and tell you about it.

Suddenly, VC doesn't seem as much of a solution as it did before, when it was only your life on the line. Another day, and another cyclist - someone's sister, or son, or father - is killed while riding their bike. And the world goes on.

I like to think I've done my family a good deed, helping them get on their bikes. The cheery statistics do tell me it's a net benefit to their health. But the thought that they could be next, that VC is putting them at risk every time they're out on their bike, makes me more than a little uneasy.

So, what is the CTC for? Is it for radical change, for everyday cycling, for everyone, and for the conditions to make that happen? If so - why so little mention of The Netherlands, Denmark and the rest? Except to suggest that we can't ever have what they have, and that it'd be wrong even to start, even to try.

The denialism, the head-in-the-sand to what is happening in the UK, is breathtaking. Statistics manipulated, presented in relative terms to inflate the numbers. "50% more cyclists in London", for example. Gaudy saturn yellow press releases on cycle training, lorry driver "awareness", the endless helmet issue etc. And meanwhile, cycling in the UK flatlines.

CTC, LCC, Sustrans - all have collaborated in preserving the status quo.

CTC and LCC - One road for all, shared - but not equally of course. Understandably - it's hard to share with vehicles several orders of magnitude larger or smaller than yours.

Sustrans, of course, has taken a slightly different approach, at best seeking out excellent off-road routes. At worst, they have conspired to tidy cyclists out of sight, out of mind, dumping them onto inadequate towpaths or old railways. These may not be direct, but at least they're scenic.

In the 1950's, the British Medical Association was strongly opposed to the creation of the NHS. Doctors felt the status quo served their interests quite nicely. But the change was not intended to benefit them - it was for everyone else in British society. In time, the BMA realized that medicine was bigger than their members' interests.

The CTC has been protecting its members' interests since its inception. It bitterly opposed the introduction of segregated cycling facilities almost 100 years ago, suggesting that cyclists might lose the "right to ride" on the road.

Over the following century, it backed itself into a corner, still defending that same right. Except that fewer and fewer people want to ride on those roads, such as they are. What works for me, and other cyclists, on a fast Sunday ride or Tuesday evening training session, does not work for the vast majority of the population. "Cyclists" are now a much derided, pitied, ridiculed minority, and most adults never ride a bike.

Does the CTC wish to see this change?

Or will it watch, as its members add Hi-viz to their wardrobes, lights to their helmets, air horns to their bikes, cameras to their handlebars, and decide that it knows which products to review for this year's Xmas Cycle magazine?


Fonant said...

Well, the CTC have changed their Memorandum and Articles of Association, first written on 28th September, 1887, many years before motor cars became a problem.

The CTC is now set to become a Charity, which (although very sad for us old CTC Club members) may well be the change that's needed. The CTC will be required by the Charity Commission to work to benefit all cyclists in the country, and not just their members.

I'm a "Right to Ride" rep, but these days prefer to call myself a "Local Representative". I have two 6 year old twins, and I am seeing our roads through their eyes when we go cycling. In no way can cycling on our roads in amongst badly-driven motor cars be described as "safe", those of us who are vehicular cyclists have merely learnt not to think about the danger we're in. Even cyclists with decades of VC experience are being killed on our roads.

pj mcnally said...

Thanks - that's really encouraging!

(To pre-empt any misunderstanding, the above is meant sincerely. It's v difficult to convey sincerity or sarcasm online - I misread comments like mine all the time).

It's excellent to hear that you're not keen to use the "right to ride" slogan.

You're right that VC people still get killed. Look what happened to Ken Kifer, for instance.

I hope being a members' charity is the push CTC needs to work for all cyclists, I really do. But I'd also like to see them working for the other 98% of the population that wouldn't call themselves a cyclist.

Your kids, and mine, for instance, (when I get around to having some). No matter how proficient my VC skills are, I just can't imagine letting my kids cycle to school in the UK. And if I can't, do we really expect the non-cycling parent majority to?

We're close to losing a generation - kids will be brought up increasingly by parents who never cycle themselves, and never did (except around their cul-de-sac, and they got bored of that soon enough). These parents don't know of the freedom to travel a bike should bring; how could they possibly inculcate that in their children?

Mustafa said...

It would be wrong to look at London Cycling Campaign (LCC) through the narrow prism of CTC's 'Ride to Ride' mantra. We're a member-led urban cycling organisation - not a cycle tourists club. Our members and activists have a very broad set of views.

Next week we launch a full membership ballot on our single-issue campaign for the 2012 London Mayoral elections. An explicit call for a continental-style cycling experience will be one of the options. You can find out more on when it relaunches early next week.

Mustafa Arif - Trustee and Chair of Campaigns

pj mcnally said...

Mustafa, that's great news - my apologies if I tarred LCC with the same brush as the CTC, and thanks for clearing that up.

It'd probably be a white paint brush - the kind used to give us the "world-class cycling infrastructure" featured so prominently at the bottom of the hierarchy of provision.