Two bald men fighting over a comb

This was Jorge Luis Borges analogy of the Falklands War.  It sprang to mind when I read a blog post on As Easy As Riding A Bike, entitled ‘No surrender’ – the damaging, enduring legacy of the 1930s in British cycle campaigning.  The writer, who normally offers well-informed, if somewhat over-lengthy, critique of current UK cycling policy, takes aim at the so-called ‘vehicular cyclists’, and seeks to apportion some considerable part of blame for the current pitiful state of cycling provision in this country on the CTC.  The thrust is more or less that the CTC has incompetent policy formulation written into its DNA, and draws on CTC policy documents from the 1930s to make a case.  The post flirts with the reductio ad Hitlerum logical fallacy popular with many amateur debaters,  saying: the Cyclists’ Touring Club was strongly in favour of motorway building; they sent a member on a delegation to Hitler’s Germany to look at autobahns.


It is a several thousand word treatise on what is wrong with the CTC, and how the CTC’s tactics, historically and currently, are undermining the efforts to get more people cycling.  

The proposition that because the CTC once espoused ‘bad’ policies, that the CTC is irrecoverably ‘broken’ as an organisation long after the main characters responsible for the policy (or policies) are dead is not really sustainable.  For instance, some years ago the London Cycling Campaign endorsed what many people, including myself, thought was a poorly conceived and executed campaign by TfL called ‘Share the Road’.  I was so disillusioned by the campaign that I resigned my membership and wrote a couple of vituperative blogs (which, I am sure, made no impact on the LCC!) about the campaign.  Afterwards I got involved in a disagreement with an LCC employee over their lack of public campaigning or even mention of HGV deaths that ended with the LCC employee using foul and abusive language in an email to me.

However, I have since rejoined the LCC because their campaigning on the HGV issue, piloted by Charlie Lloyd, is excellent and high-profile, and their other campaigns seem to be a lot less apologetic than they were 6 or 7 years ago, when they appeared to be very much the creature of TfL. Which shows that an organisation can change course quite dramatically.

A response by As Easy As Riding A Bike in the comments section of the post, replying to a suggestion that there might be other ways as well as segregation to get people cycling, citing Hackney, really got my goat.  The author dismissed Hackney as not all that significant because the 7% modal share (7% of all journeys by bike) is rather less than the author would expect, given Hackney’s demographics, i.e. lots of poor people and hipsters live in Hackney.  Oh yeah?  It’s still more than 3 times the average for London, so why so quick to dismiss?

At this point, I have to confess to being a ‘vehicular cyclist’.  A ‘vehicular cyclist’, according to the cant, is a cyclist who uses the existing road networks, and is against ‘segregation’, i.e. bike paths that are separated from the main road-way.  I sort of fit into this category, as I was a bicycle messenger for a number of years, and will ride in almost any prevailing road conditions.  I am against rubbish bike lanes , and view the majority of London’s cycling ‘facilities’ with disfavour.  I wrote an article for the Guardian’s bike blog about the bike lane on Clerkenwell Road saying that I thought it had made cycling on Clerkenwell Road more, not less, dangerous, and this on a road which has seen several cyclists killed in the last 20 years.

1992 flier promoting Moving TargetBut let me be clear – I am not against ‘segregation’.  I don’t enjoy sharing the road with motor vehicles.  I would much rather there were a lot less motor vehicles in London, as they are noisy, smelly, dangerous and are always getting in my way, which is why I distributed this poster (younger readers can think of it as a paper meme), calling for ‘universal discarmament’ in 1992.

My residence overlooks the canal in Hackney.  As well as being able to enjoy the antics of the water fowl, I can also observe how popular the tow-path is with cyclists.  Even on a snowy morning, such as many this winter, there are still people riding along it.  The reasons for the tow-path’s popularity are not hard to work out.  The tow-path doesn’t have cars on it, is direct and doesn’t have inconvenient give-ways or traffic lights.

Would I like to see cycling facilities that are like the tow-path, that is, direct & safe?  Yes, of course I would.  Do I want to see more cycling facilities like the one on the right, i.e. non-direct, not safe and not convenient?  No, especially not if they cost money, and allow whichever municipal body to trumpet their commitment to ‘making London a world-class cycling city’.  Do I think we are worse off with cycling facilities like these?  Yes, I do.  Is it fair to blame cycling facilities like this on the CTC’s Hiearchy of Provision, as AEARAB does? I think it’s a little perverse, and probably falls under Jack Thurston’s favourite aphorism ‘everyone hates cyclists – even other cyclists hate cyclists’.

Attacking cycle campaigning organisations is something that Freewheeler, the writer of Crap Cycling & Walking in Waltham Forest blog, also goes in for.  Freewheeler goes even further and on various different occasions accuses people like Roger Geffen of fiddling around the margins, and not being confrontational enough in challenging the car culture, and even betraying the cause.

I am not suggesting arson as the route to mass cycling but I do think that cyclists need to consider challenging the status quo in other ways than tea and biscuits at the Town Hall…  Non-violent direct action stunts are long overdue in British cycle campaigning.

That cycle campaigners have been too polite hitherto to be taken seriously is a quite laughable assertion when applied to Roger Geffen.  When I first met Roger, he was still at the London Cycling Campaign.  I had some dealings with him in the aftermath of the death of London cycle courier Edward Newstead.  Edward was killed in March 1992 by a left-turning lorry on the junction of Oxford Street and Holles Street.  He was the 5th bicycle messenger known to have died whilst working in London, but the first whose passing was marked in a meaningful way.

A flier (that’s a hand-bill for my north American readers) was passed amongst the courier community, announcing that a memorial ride would start from Marble Arch and go to the spot where Edward had been killed, i.e. we would all ride down Oxford Street.  The LCC heard of the ride and got in touch.  They wanted to help.

I met with Mark Paul Gasson, then the chair, and Roger Geffen, then the campaigns leader, and discussed what we should do.  I had to push back a little because I felt that a memorial ride wasn’t the correct back-drop for an overtly political campaign stunt, which is what Roger originally conceived of doing – banners, slogans etc.

Memorial ride for Edward Newstead, Oxford Street, 1992The memorial itself was not intended to be confrontational; we did, however, block Oxford Street completely for several minutes when we stopped and fixed a bouquet and sign near the spot where Edward was killed.  This prompted a bus driver, stationary and frustrated, to utter the memorable line: “you don’t know the grief you’re causing”.  As I wrote in this post, the action had little impact beyond those who were there, or read about it in Moving Target and the Daily Cyclist, but it felt important, significant, that we hadn’t just let Edward’s death pass unmarked.  Edward’s family afterwards expressed their thanks for our efforts.

At the time I saw it as an overtly political action, and said so.  The action didn’t need banners or slogans.  It was pretty clear to all on-lookers what was going on – cyclists staging a bike-in, because we were pissed off with the status quo.

Later on in the decade I came across Roger again at the M11 protests.  He had moved on from the LCC to real, proper Non Violent Direct Action.  The NVDAs in and around Wanstead, Leyton and Leytonstone were serious.  People got hurt.  At the time, I wasn’t totally au fait with the political philosophy behind NVDA, but it was very obvious that even very small scale NVDAs, routine stuff such as trying to stop lorries delivering supplies or removing spoil, almost always resulted in violent outcomes.

I saw one man, who had crawled underneath a big lorry to try and stop it, get crushed by a wheel.  Another had his arm held against a very hot exhaust manifold by security people to get him to release his grip on the underside of the lorry. Nearly everyone, including me, despite my fairly timid efforts, ended up covered in mud and the thick, cloying grease that covers all heavy machinery, and there was a lot of angry shouting, and considerable physical jeopardy for the protestors.  And this was at a relatively insignificant action, as nothing compared to what happened later at Claremont Road.

It was scary stuff, and, when I saw him, Roger was right at the heart of the action, utterly committed and fearless.  At the time, I remember thinking that Roger was a total head-banger, albeit in a hi-viz  jacket, wearing glasses and a mucky-looking pair of cords.  So I think I can be excused if I find the suggestion, implicit in the phrase tea and biscuits at the Town Hall, that Roger Geffen is a lap-dog who loves nothing better than cuddling up to the petrol-heads in charge of Britain’s roads totally wrong-headed and somewhat risible.  It’s even more laughable when considering that the M11 campaign took place entirely within Freewheeler’s patch, Waltham Forest.

I’m not accusing As Easy As Riding A Bike of being as polemical as Freewheeler, but I wonder why, at a time when the Mayor of London won’t even devote as much as 2% of his transport budget to cycling (surely not too much to expect, given a cycling modal share of 2% in London), and has recently appointed a journalist crony who happens to cycle, Andrew Gilligan, to the very well-paid post of Cycling Commissioner, bloggers are using up thousands of words on denigrating Roger Geffen and the CTC?   I’m not the most prolific blogger in the world, and a thousand words probably takes me a lot longer than Freewheeler and AEARAB, but this is surely hours spent on trashing CTC.

Which brings me back to the title.  I’m not all that familiar with the cycling politics or the politics of cycling in other countries – I guess it is human nature to feud – but for as long as there have been cycling organisations,  there have been feuds, whether we’re talking about the Clarion Clubs and the CTC, the NCU and the BLRC, hell, even the British Cycling Federation (precursor of British Cycling) was in a dreadful state 25 years ago, suffering regular allegations of corruption and incompetence.

But given the still pitiful state of cycling provision in this country, these arguments do make me think of two bald men fighting over a comb.

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8 comments
  1. Nice post Bill – I agree with your message here.

    A lot of the new wave get it wrong about segregation and do have a – how I shall I put it – inappropriate way of responding to those who might disagree by taking the view that you seem to take here. I have to say that the arguments that myself and those such as Carlton Reid present suggesting there may be some problems with the segregationist mindset are often treated quite shabbily, to put it mildly. Of course, some like As Easy As Riding Bike, are splendid on motorist law breaking, some are good on helmets, and occasionally they can be good on topics like the sums of money that motorists pay (or don’t).

    But there is a rather contemptuous attitude – which sometimes spills over into unwarranted abuse – which is unacceptable. As it happens, the writer of Crap Cycling in WF was a participant in the No M11 Link Road protests, and for that reason most of his former comrades chose to disregard him when he went over the line of acceptable behaviour when he was , er, overly critical of some of them.

    I also think that there is also a problem that the new wave of bloggers can get vain and arrogant – I blog therefore I am important – it is something about the medium (Yes, I know, I chair an organisation which has posts on its site…)
    I have spent some time engaging in debate, but have to say that while everybody has been polite to me, it is quite an effort to go through sometimes arcane arguments – and it doesn’t seem to make any difference to anybody anyway. Ah well, people have their ideas and are going to carry on come what may.

    BTW, tie was Paul, not Mark, Gasson who was at LCC.

    BTW 2. I do hope I am not the only person responding, as on a previous post. Otherwise it means that blogs are indeed lust sad old middle aged men typing away…

    BOB DAVIS

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    • Well, that’s two sad middle-aged men typinng away then…

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  2. AEARAB responds here: http://aseasyasridingabike.wordpress.com/2013/04/15/pointless-infighting/

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  3. wiganwill said:

    Please don’t fall in to the Tony Blair rhetorical trick of asking a question and then answering it yourself. Do I find this annoying? Of course I do. Is it something I want to see again? No, I do not.

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    • I’m confused, am I deceiving myself by using a trick, or falling into a trap?

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      • wiganwill said:

        I’m sure that’s a question you can answer for yourself.

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  4. An interesting and elegant perspective on the same topic here: http://geckocycling.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/blame-vehicular-cyclists.html

    Like

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