The Problem of Cycle Complaining

I've been involved in a small amount of cycle campaigning over the last few years, and one theme comes up over and over. To coin a new phrase - there's too much "cycle complaining" and not enough "cycle campaigning". By "cycle complaining" I mean where well-intentioned people just draw attention to problems - poor junction layout, narrow lanes, aggressive driving - without either talking about the good stuff or actually doing anything to help fix the problems they identify. It also gives other cycle campaigners a bad name, since the complainers come across as confrontational and obstructionist, and I only need to read my twitter feed to realise that most times cycling campaigning is mentioned, someone somewhere is complaining about something and concrete suggestions are few and far between.

One example that particularly struck a chord was when I went along to a local campaign group meeting to discuss some new developments our local highways authority (in this case TfL) were making. On one road the proposal was to remove a 1m wide "cycle gap", and the 3ft steel bollard that was slap bang in the middle of it, and add a proper contraflow cycle lane instead. The campaign group were going to formally object to the improvement since it the resulting lane wasn't quite wide enough for their liking - despite it clearly being an improvement over what was there already. I was slightly shocked, but on further discussion realised that their position was more of a battle-hardened "cycle complaining" mentality than anything they could rationally justify about the matter at hand. Which got me thinking.

Cycle campaign groups are at a huge disadvantage when discussing plans with local councils. Even when TfL showed us some sneak peaks of the roadway engineering diagrams it was tough for the campaigners to deal with them effectively - they were just printouts, not the actual files; even if they had been CAD files there was nobody there who would be able to examine them or draw the suggested amendments. Ideally a campaign group could respond by saying "here are the places where the proposal doesn't meet standard X, AND here are our suggestions for improvements we'd like to see".

This works on a wider scale too. If a council approaches a cycle group to ask where they would like more bike parking installed, the cycle group are unlikely to be able to help much more than just saying "roughly here" (even supposing they maintain a list of sites), rather than "here, have some CAD files for our top ten sites prioritised using density analysis of existing locations" . If a cycle group want to approach a council to convert one-way roads into two-way, they are unlikely to have the traffic simulations to show the five most useful changes. There's just a huge gulf in tools and technologies available to each side, so when the only way things work is for one side to suggest and the other to accept/refuse, it's easier to see where so much reactionary complaining comes from.

Enter the guys behind CycleStreets, with their "Helping campaigners campaign" proposal. You can read it for yourself, but in summary is a web-based tool to track, manage and develop solutions to infrastructure problems facing cyclists. While it's not a panacea for everything I've discussed, I think it's a hugely important step forward for all cycle campaigning groups. Their proposal has been short-listed for the GeoVation awards finals in two weeks' time and I wish them the best of luck, the funding from that would really kick things off. If you want to show your support then go for it, through your blogs, twitter or however you see fit. Even if they don't manage the grand prize I hope to see their proposals come to fruition in the near future, especially given their track record of getting things done. I hope to get the opportunity to help their ideas see the light of day - it will be an excellent tool to help turn cycle complaining into the results we want to see.

This post was posted on 19 April 2011 and tagged Transport