Saturday, 5 November 2011

How local campaigning can make a difference

When people experience the mind boggling Dutch cycling network (for example with my Cycling in Amsterdam and The Netherlands guidebook) they always assume that cycling has always been at the heart of Dutch life. What most people are not aware of is that there was a serious threat to this culture in the 1960s and 1970s. The Dutch road network was increasingly taken over by motorised traffic, with authorities fully adapting roads to the "modern way of life". Cyclists were naturally pushed into curso de ti the extinct zone, with an increasing number of road deaths. A video produced by Netherlands based campaigner David Hembrow shows how only by public demand government policies were changed. Petitions to the Dutch prime minister were handed over by large crowds and an impressive demonstration in Amsterdam made the main access road into the city centre covered by bicycles.

This happened in the highly spirited 1960s and 1970s and it seems unlikely that such a movement could be established in the UK now. People in the UK have been ruled by motorised traffic for over 5 decades, so the concept of the "metal box" is deeply rooted in people's minds as the only way of getting from a to b. A silent revolution consisting of local initiatives could bring the change though and I find proof of it in some UK communities.

When doing surveying work on behalf of the National Cycle Route Planner I checked out St Albans and Hemel Hempstead, just north of London. When cycling in these towns I found the difference in cycling culture staggering. In Hemel Hempstead I only encountered the occasional other cyclist and I felt like an alien. In St Albans, only a couple of miles down the road, there were definitely more cyclists in the streets and each further mile I travelled confirmed I was not alone on my bike. Prominent stickers, as on the bike racks pictured, and on signs at essential short cuts made me aware of the St Albans Cycling Campaign.

This group of local cyclists got organised in 1998 and has been actively lobbying for better funding and provision for cyclists through their local authority for over ten years. This approach is starting to pay off, especially if you compare the cycling conditions in St. Albans to those in nearby Hemel Hempstead. Hemel Hempstead has sadly not much more to offer cyclists then a muddy tow path along the Grand Union Canal and an inconsistent cycle route to the east end of town. An example of the Hemel Hempstead situation is this picture I took of one of Hemel Hempstead's few cycle paths literally blocked by parked cars.

Cyclists in St. Albans are clearly much better off. The Sustrans National Cycle Network routes 6 and 61 provide access from the outer St. Albans suburbs to its town centre. Although these routes still need some work (they take you through the busy high street without any cycling provision), the potential of a proper cycling network is there and St Albans Cycling Campaign (STCC) has done much to develop it. Various handy cut throughs have been made accessible for cyclists as a result of their "Small schemes, BIG changes" campaign.

Their biggest victory so far is the development of cycle paths in VerulamiumPark, which will finally create a link from the town centre to the large residential King Harry Lane area, currently only to be reached by bike via a hazardous winding busy main road. "It is an idea that has been around a long time and we thought it was time to give it another push", told STCC chairman Steve Wragg to the St Albans Review in July 2011, when a petition signed by over 1000 people was finally successful (see picture, courtesy of STCC).

This example shows not only how decisions on the creation of cycling infrastructure are made at a local level, but also how public demand can change council view points, just as this happened on a large scale in The Netherlands back in the 1970s. Priorities in highway financing can only be changed by public demand and the St Albans Cycling Campaign shows the best way forward; cyclists organising themselves, creating public debate and continually pressing the local council with ideas and suggestions, small or big.

So, if you read this, and you are not happy about the cycling conditions in your area, what can you do? Simply, get organised! Find other cyclists in your area. You'll find them at local bike clubs or have a cycle around at rush hour. Also, monitor some school gates and have a chat with that odd parent that brings their children to school by bike. Don't forget to check out the local Bikeability delivery providers to see if there are some instructors who'd like to join you. Then, call a meeting and approach organisations like Sustrans , CTC or the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain to support to your call. Also think of the TransitionTown movement; there might be already a campaigning group in place you can tag onto! When approaching councils with your new organisation, be aware that within councils there might be sustainable officers at work already, desperate for that essential public support to demand more resources to transform their cycle network plans into a reality. Work together to bring that much needed change!

Remember, if you are a cyclist and you are not prepared to take this on, who else would? The road to succes might be long and full of barriers, but it is worth the effort. For now, I wish St Albans Cycling Campaign all the best and I hope they will be able to change St Albans in a truly cycling friendly town over the years to come; there is still lots of work to be done! 

Meanwhile I have followed up the St Albans example in the town where I live, Barnstaple. We set up the North Devon Cycling Forum in 2013 and it is unbelievable how many people suddenly want to talk with you once you get organised! Our study into the future for the cycling infrastructure of this town was published in 2014, but actual progress in conditions for cycling is still very slow. More passionate people are needed to really make a difference...

What about going for a traffic-calmed cycling holiday with one of my "Cycling Dutchman" guidebooks?

Cycling in  Amsterdam and The Netherlands - The very best routes in the cyclist's paradise makes you travel beyond Dutch cliches like clogs, windmills and the Amsterdam red light district, allowing you to truly explore the lowlands. The book features 1064 kms of routes and has special chapters explaining the unique Dutch cycling-minded traffic rules and its cycle route signage systems; 164 pages, colour, wiro bound, fits in standard handlebar bag, see also

The London - Land's End Cycle Route Book is designed for those who LOVE cycling, but don't like traffic. The book takes you onto the most beautiful cycle routes of southern England, including the Camel Trail, Devon Coast to Coast Route, Bristol and Bath Railway path, Thames Valley route and many more! What makes the book unique is that the route is completely continuous, including detailed directions and local knowledge all the way. Get inspired; choose your favourite route sections or go for a full summer holiday adventure; 164 pages, colour, wiro bound, fits in standard handlebar bag, see

Other popular Cycling Dutchman blog articles:

Explaining Dutch cycling infrastructure:

Dutch bike rides and Dutch cycling culture:

The 12 best bike rides of The Netherlands

Dutch style bike rides in the United Kingdom:
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