Sunday, 5 January 2014

Unpublished comment

During a recent debate on David Hembrow's blog—a debate which ultimately proved to be very unsatisfying for me personally—I was variously accused of the following:
• that I don't like thinking long-term;
• that I object to having both sufficient density and quality in the network;
• that my contributions to the debate are "entirely negative";
• that I am arguing for a continuation of the status quo;
• that I excuse failure; and
• that I beat around the bush.
In addition, it was suggested that a metropolis the size of London doesn't need decent network mapping, and that my thought otherwise is "part of the issue" I have with "decent infrastructure".

On top of all of this, I was then refused the right of reply, in the sense that David Hembrow declined to publish my last comment. As the man who saw a distant waterway must once have said: Far canal!

Here is a flavour of the debate between us:
Me: I can't even be certain why we are having this debate. There is only one publication out of Europe to answer the question 'How to begin?', and my opinions are largely informed by this work. If you disagree with the views expressed therein, then why not falsify them?
[...] 
I am only talking about "doing less" as a means to an end. "The level of minimum functioning is a prudent course to follow," says Cycling: the way ahead. Are you suggesting this is incorrect? Do you wish to falsify this?
David: Cycling: the way ahead is the result of a committee. It doesn't come from the leading cycling nation in Europe, but from "Europe" as a whole. It's as if all countries within this economic area have an equal experience of cycling when we know they do not. Statements in it are very obviously the result of compromise and of each member of the committee wanting to be presented in a good light.
Me: In a sentence ... "The key word is an holistic approach and then a separation of functions." (Steffen Rasmussen, Head of Traffic Design, City of Copenhagen)
Could you explain your position in a sentence?
David: As for the Copenhagen quote... You do realise, I hope, that that city consistently misses its targets for growth within a country which has suffered a 20-year decline in cycling. This comes down in large part to Denmark not building infrastructure of a sufficient quality to keep cyclists safe.
Is that really the best place to quote from? The best place to try to emulate?
[...] 
I'm not surprised that you can find eleven words to quote which appear to support your position, but this is meaningless.

(As we have just seen, in this comment and the one before, for David the thing to be refuted is not what was said, but who said it.)

Me: You write that if we're not aiming future cycling facilities at people who do not cycle now then it's impossible to make progress. Actually the evidence from Portland is entirely to the contrary...
David: If Portland proves anything, it is that doing little achieves little, even with strong help from demographics and geography. Portland's enthusiastic self-promotion and the enthusiasm of many individual cyclists in Portland about their city hasn't been enough. Marketing is worthless next to infrastructural change.
Despite being a place where cycling should be the easiest thing in the world to promote, decades have passed and only fractionally more people were attracted to cycle than were already cycling. This slow progress has been achieved by building too little infrastructure of much too low a quality.

The thing about Portland is not that they didn't make mistakes—not that they did some things which they probably ought to have done differently—but that they were still able to make reasonable progress despite the fact that they were constrained by "tiny budgets and limited designs".

In 2000, for example, Portland's bike share was 1.8%. Eleven years later it had risen to 6.3%, an increase of 350%. In large part, this was achieved with basically just a "bare bones" infrastructure.

Now that Portland has this solid base, it isn't going to stop there, of course. The long-term goal is a bike share of around 25%. Crucially, this policy has good political and public support. Roger Geller, Portland's Bicycle Coordinator, has said: "Every indication we have—from user surveys, use itself, and voting habits—suggests that Portlanders staunchly support Portland as a strong and strengthening bicycle city."

The development of a comprehensive, city-wide cycle network is regarded by none other than the European Cyclists' Federation as "a basic pre-condition of mass cycling". Thus, just as a good rugby coach would make sure a player could run straight lines, draw the man in front of him and pass the ball down the line before he set about teaching him all of the various loops and pivots and dummy switches and so forth, so also, first and foremost, a town or city must develop a coherent and easy-to-follow network of routes which is going to be useful to people who ride bicycles on a fairly regular basis.

Photo credit: BBC

Nobody is denying that in the absence of good quality infrastructure, it is only going to be the people on the margins who will cycle. "If cycling is to be universally adopted as a means of transportation," Roger Geller pointed out, "then the concerns of the majority must be addressed." However, as I remarked in my unpublished comment, why would anybody not set about trying to provide for the majority within the framework provided by a functioning cycle network? No seriously: why would anybody not do that? No seriously: why don't you answer the question?

I asked David to summarise his position in a sentence or two on a couple of occasions, and noted in my unpublished comment his reluctance to do so. Even so, I think the following captures the essence of David's position fairly and accurately:
If we're not aiming future cycling facilities at people who do not cycle now then it's impossible to make progress [...] only designing to the highest possible quality standards will work. 
As I say, I think this fairly and accurately reflects David's point of view; but I don't accept it. And I don't see that I should be required to accept it without some evidence.

This is from David as well (source):
What makes cycling attractive in Dutch cities [...] could be replicated in British cities if only the will existed to ask for it. What has been done is very simple. Long term planning is key—the same policies have been followed for many years.
I genuinely do not understand why people find it necessary to deviate too far from this. Am I missing something? Is my vision hazy? Am I overlooking the obvious?

My unpublished comment

@Eric @David: For me, the debate has never been about where to end up. I have never argued against high standards and against conditions which would enable the entire population to cycle, and if you assert as much one more time, David, without quoting me, I will take legal advice. (I have searched my blog for such phrases as "high quality" and "high standard", and I suggest you do the same.)

No, for me the debate is about where to begin. This information is detailed in Cycling: the way ahead for towns and cities, but very briefly it goes like this: plan, study and then "introduce" a cycle network. Once the network is up and running, develop it further "on the basis of priority interventions and a timetable."

As I understand it, this strategy is still running its course in the Netherlands.

Eric, you ask why I wouldn't campaign for a bigger network with high standard infrastructure. A related but slightly different question is: Why aren't UK-based cycle advocates campaigning for high standard infrastructure to be installed within the framework provided by a functioning cycle network? I have asked this question maybe a thousand million, billion times, and never once had an answer. Every single time the question is completely ducked.

But that I do as I would be done by, to answer your question, Eric, the reason is that, firstly, the planning process in the UK is—how to put it?—cumbersome (e.g. LGV Nord opened in France in 1993, but HS1 wasn't fully operational here until 2007—13 years after the Channel Tunnel opened); and secondly, when taking an holistic approach, it is good practice to begin by making the minimum change for the maximum effect (e.g. permaculture principles).

The case is, there isn't a town or city in the UK which has a functioning cycle network. We don't even have the basics in place. Advocates of mass cycling need to work with the authorities in order to ensure that this is corrected. Instead of which, they sit atop Mount Utterly Bloody Brilliant refusing to budge an inch. Result? Nearly every single main road in the capital is omitted from TfL's plans for a central London bike grid.

Full-size map available here

I have never had a problem with the authorities wanting to do more than I propose; but when they set out to do less than, I am looking around for explanations.

Finally, I note your reluctance, David, to summarise your view in a sentence or two.


Post Script

There are of course other bloggers who regard what I am saying as 'off message', and who have also not allowed my comments to be published. Needless to say, this includes the London Cycling Campaign.

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