Saturday, 30 July 2011

1934: The moment it all went wrong for cycling in the UK

Cartoon from the CTC Gazette about 1934 (?). Photograph: CTC
David Hembrow has an interesting article on the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain website on Why the Netherlands is important for British cyclists. In it, he notes the close cultural similarities between the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, how their climates and geographies are similar, and how closely intertwined their histories have been.
The two countries are adjacent to each other. If not for the North Sea, a storm in which devastated areas of both countries in 1953, they would share a border.
He mentions how both countries had  powerful cycling cultures in the first half of the 20th century: in 1949 British people travelled further by bicycle than they did by car, in total. But in the second half of the 20th century, the Netherlands and the UK diverged incredibly in their cycling cultures. The Netherlands became the world's highest-rate cycling nation, the UK one of the world's lowest. 

Why did this happen? Exactly when did this start? Who was responsible?

I think some of the answer is provided by the cartoon reproduced above. I took this from the Guardian's Bike blog. The cartoon shows how an element of the British cycling community before the Second World War – and, it turned out in the fullness of time, the most influential element, whose thinking was to dominate British cycling policy for the next 75 years – regarded British attempts to emulate the dedicated cycle provision that was being developed in the Netherlands and Germany at that time.

This cartoon, though not drawn for the Cyclists' Touring Club, was published by them in their Gazette, but I am not certain when. The Guardian's blog links this cartoon, however, with the construction of the double cycle tracks on the new A40 in West London. The opening of these tracks in 1934, by the then Minister for Transport, Leslie Hore-Belisha, is documented in a fascinating Pathé newsreel. In this newsreel we see the width and quality of these tracks, which allowed cyclists to ride three abreast on both sides of the road, one-directionally on tracks on the appropriate side of the road, logically, separated from both motorists on one side, and pedestrians on the other, with a grass separating strip between the road and the cycle track and another one between the cycle track and the footpath, much as in equivalents that can be seen today on main roads throughout northern Europe – except in the UK. And these cycle tracks on the Western Avenue were continuous for 2.5 miles. Belisha, in his very brief speech, rightly cites the reasons for the provision of the tracks as being the safety and convenience of cyclists – the twin reasons that lie behind all quality dedicated cycle provision.

But others saw it differently, including the author of the cartoon. The cartoon satirises the concept of separating out different types of traffic on the roads, with lanes (in the sky) for "fire engines and ambulances only", "perambulators only", and "pedestrians only". Other elements in the satire are the ironic "Safety first" poster on the bus, and the poster for "Skids tyres", while pedestrians absail overhead, and the motor traffic is depicted as travelling at high speed, unencumbered by the need to accommodate cyclists on the road and pedestrians crossing at surface level.

And this satire is perfectly understandable in the context of the times. Up until recently, the motor car had been a rarity: a plaything of the rich, peripheral to transport. The few cars there had been had "shared space" on the roads with bicycles, horse carts, handcarts, Hackney carriages, motor buses and trams. To have separate provision on the roads for each of these vehicle types would indeed then have seemed an absurd idea to reasonable people, on the assumption that the future would not look very different to the past. But things were changing at an alarming pace. Henry Ford and his imitators had now given the car to the middle classes. The suburbs of West London, that the Western Avenue was built to transmit traffic through, were expanding exponentially, as were the suburbs of every city, being built on a pattern and scale that, for the first time, assumed car ownership for ordinary families. Cars were starting to drive all other traffic off the roads, by their sheer numbers as well as the danger they posed to other road-users. In London, 11 cyclists a week were being killed by cars, 1,324 deaths nationally in 1934. Hence the case for tracks for the "safety and convenience of cyclists".

Note how the cartoonist shows a cycle track absolutely packed with cyclists. His assumption would have been, I suspect, that the popularity of cycling was a fixed quantity, and that the result of cycle paths would be to force those cyclists into an inadequate space. What he could not foresee was that, in a very few years, without separation from cars, bikes would be almost completely forced off the road by the volume, speed and aggression of motor traffic. Or, rather, their riders would be "driven" into cars or buses, and that that driving of cyclists off their bikes and into motor vehicles would become a feedback loop, itself increasing further the volume of traffic on the roads, and making cycling conditions even worse, so that soon cycling would become, to all intents and purposes, a thing of the past in Britain.

The caption under the cartoon, "Special paths for cyclists are the thin end of the wedge", appears in fact not to be part of the original cartoon, with is captioned in bigger letters "We'll all go our own way home", but the addition of the CTC Gazette editor. What did the editor mean by this? He could have meant just that cycle paths were "the thin end of the wedge" in driving though the mad, super-traffic infrastructure that the cartoon depicts. Or he could have meant that they were "the thin end of the wedge" in terms of the eventual elimination of cyclists from all roads. Chris Peck of the CTC, quoted in the Guardian article, gives his impression, gleaned from the CTC archives:
I'm afraid that in 1934 the CTC was dead against cycle tracks of all kinds, even this one. We were still very much of the mind that we should try and recapture the roads from the motorists, so the construction of cycle tracks was seen as defeat. Indeed, the CTC suggested an alternative, "motorways" – built only for cars – leaving the rest of the road network for cyclists to continue to use. The CTC eventually got its wish: the motorways were built and led to a flood of more cars onto the old roads, making them even more hostile for cyclists.
Peck's analysis is accurate. One problem was that "the thin end of the wedge" argument against cycle infrastructure just kept being used, and used, and used, doggedly, by British cyclists, long after it had become irrelevant. Long after thick or thin wedges or wedges of any description had been rendered totally irrelevant by the fact that cycling had been virtually eliminated from the roads anyway, British cyclists kept talking like this – and some still do.

When I posted my Cycling is dangerous post here, a commenter told me that by writing this phrase, I was likely to get cycling banned – the same old thinking. I had to reply that, well, perhaps he hadn't noticed, but cycling is banned already in the UK – has been for years. Its 1% modal share of journeys shows it has been banned more effectively than could ever have been achieved by legislation. As I told him, he government bans travelling at more than 70 mph on motorways, and at more than 30 mph is towns, but most motorists do these things. The government bans narcotic drugs, but more than 1% of people take them. The government bans tax evasion, but lots of people engage in that. People do not stop doing things because they are banned from doing them legally, they stop doing things because those things are made very unpleasant and inconvenient – which is what has happened with cycling.

The resistance to cycle-specific infrastructure displayed by British cyclists, and particularly by the CTC, as the largest body representing their interests, during the mid-20th century, proved a spectacular own goal. As cycling numbers dwindled and pressure to create more space for motor traffic grew, the fact that cyclists did not seem to want their own space proved very convenient for politicians. Cyclists did not want the tracks such as the ones on the A40, or so the CTC told the government. So they were eliminated to make more space for cars. Some time after the Second World War (no doubt someone can tell me exactly when, but I guess it was in the 1960s), a third lane was added to both sides of the A40 over the top of the old cycle track and grass verges. The pavements remained, but of course were little-used, on what had become an urban motorway. When policy changed again, and "promoting cycling" became fashionable again at the end of the century, those pavements were divided in half, to carve out the cycle paths on the A40, marked in brown on the Transport for London Cycle Guides, that we have today.

Apart from being far narrower than the Belisha's tracks, these present-day paths also differ in being, illogically, on the insides of the pavements, and not separated from them, so engendering the cyclist-pedestrian conflict which was carefully avoided in 1934, and also, illogically, they are two-way on both sides of the road, a pattern you tend not to see in Europe. Having two-way paths on both sides emphasises the total barrier that the road has now become, no longer a conduit for cyclists, but a wall to them. And these pavement cycle paths are now not continuous for 2.5 miles, but interrupted by numerous major junctions and small side-turnings, at all of which cyclists have to give way, or take long detours round, sometimes involving tunnels.

One of the Western Avenue cycle paths today, in Park Royal, Borough of Ealing (From Google Streetview)
Looking the other way from the same point, showing one of the many interruptions to the cycle paths
So in 1934, in the UK, we were getting cycling infrastructure right, but it then all went downhill. There have been several changes of political fashion since, where cycle facilities have been introduced, then taken away again again (as cycle lanes installed only in the 2000s in the Borough of Barnet have been taken away again by the current administration there). But the quality trajectory has always been downhill, as the cycle lobby voice has been weak, due to lack of cyclists, and the pressure for space for moving and parked vehicles so intense. 

The Netherlands has had these policy swings as well. Cycle paths had already been built in Amsterdam by 1906. But by the 1970s, the roads there had become almost as motor-dominated as in Britain, and some of the earlier cycle paths had been removed to widen roads, as in the UK. The main change of policy in the Netherlands began occurring in this decade. From the Dutch Bicycle Master Plan of 1999:
Bicycle use in Amsterdam began increasing gradually from around 1977. At the same time, there was an increase in attention to bicycle traffic, fueled to an important extent by the activities and notions of local parties, including neighbourhood groups and the local branch of the Dutch Cyclists' Union. Policy-making officials continued to study different possibilities for mixing and separating the various types of traffic. A proposal was made as early as 1972 to create separate routes for bicycle and moped traffic. This resulted in a bicycle traffic plan, in which the feasibility of segragated bicycle infrastructure was confirmed.
But, as the Masterplan also details, the modern high-quality routes only started appearing in the 1980s, and developments acceleated in the 1990s, with the Masterplan itself appearing at the end of that decade, synthesising and standardising, at a national level, various developments in best practice that had evolved separately in the various cities and regions of the Netherlands. So Dutch cycle infrastructure is mostly very new, and so is the culture that goes with it. The same can be said of the cycle-friendly cities of Gemany and Switzerland.

It seems, from the quote above, that the Dutch Cyclists' Union, the Fietersbond, was closely involved with the infrastructure developments of the early period of modern Dutch cycle expansion. This Fietersbond was actually a new organisation. From the Masterplan:
In 1975, the Dutch Cyclists' Union enfb was established, initially as a counterpart to the ANWB (Royal Dutch Touring Club), which no longer promoted (solely) bicycle interests, and was therefore originally named the Enige Echte Nederlandse Fietsersbond ("The One and Only True Dutch Cyclists' Union").
So the Fietersbond, at the time that policy started to shift towards the bicycle, was not a historic, tradition-bound organisation with fixed views like Britain's Cyclists' Touring Club, but a new participant in a process of researching effective cycling policy in conjunction with government. The Fietersbond, indeed, had arisen because, as this quote states, an older organisation which had had the function of promoting cycling was not seen to be appropriate to this task anymore, as its brief included representing motorists, and there was now a realisation that these functions in one organisation were not compatible. 

A kind of parallel development in the British context had taken place way back, in a different world, in 1906, when the High Court had refused the CTC permission to rename as "The Touring Club" and admit all tourists, i.e. motorists, the judge in the case perceiving that these two modes of transport were so different that one organisation could not represent both. So the motoring organisations of the UK, the AA and RAC emerged, and the CTC continued to represent only cycling. So in the late 20th century, when UK government policy moved back towards cycling, there was not seen to be any need for a new organisation to represent cyclists, with new thinking, in the way that had occurred in the Netherlands, other than at a local level, where such groups as the London Cycling Campaign emerged, which tended to have a different, and more modern outlook, than the CTC, rooted more in the "green" movement, and treating cycling more from the point of view of a transport mode than a leisure activity.

Another influence on developments in the Netherlands was the campaign began in 1973 Stop de Kindermoord (Stop the Child Murder). This campaign became a significant influence on the Dutch government, in persuading them to promote cycle infrastructure as a way of reducing the number of child deaths on the roads. In 1973, 3,264 people had been killed on Dutch roads, and in 1973, 450 deaths were of children. Once again, we see the interesting fact that a parallel development in the UK had occurred much earlier. The rhetoric of "road murder" had actually been used in the UK to change policy long before. Let us go back to Leslie Hore-Belisha, the Anglo-Jewish Conservative transport minister, he of the Western Avenue cycle track. From Wikipedia:
Hore-Belisha was appointed Minister of Transport in 1934, coming to public prominence at a time when motoring was becoming available to the masses. All UK speed limits for motor cars had controversially been removed by the Road Traffic Act 1930 during the previous (Labour) administration. 1934 was to see record GB road casualties with 7,343 deaths and 231,603 injuries being recorded, with half of the casualties being pedestrians and three-quarters occurring in built-up areas. Hore-Belisha described this as 'mass murder'. Shortly after being appointed, he was crossing Camden High Street when a sports car shot along the street without stopping, nearly causing him 'serious injury or worse.' He became involved in a public-relations exercise to demonstrate how to use the new ‘uncontrolled crossings’.
Hore-Belisha's Road Traffic Act 1934 introduced a speed limit of 30 mph for motor cars in built-up areas. This was vigorously opposed by many, who saw the new regulations as a removal of 'an Englishman's freedom of the highway.' The earlier 20 mph speed limit had been abolished in 1930 because it was universally flouted. A large backlog of court cases had made the law unenforceable. In addition, The Automobile Association (AA) and the Royal Automobile Club (RAC) had frequently been successful in defending their members against evidence from primitive speed traps.
Hore-Belisha rewrote the Highway Code and was responsible for the introduction of two innovations which led to a dramatic drop in road accidents: the driving test and the Belisha beacon, named after him by the public. On his retirement, he was made vice-president of the Pedestrians' Association [now Living Streets] and to this day the logo of the organisation includes a Belisha Beacon [no longer the case, I believe].
See that the level of road deaths in the UK in 1934 was very comparable to that in the Netherlands in 1972, bearing in mind the UK then had about twice the population that the Netherlands had 40 years later. As in the case of cyclist representation, we see that important changes on road safety in the UK happened much earlier than they did in the Netherlands. I think this is a significant fact. The death rate in the Dutch Kindermoord year was very like the death rate in Belisha's year of "mass murder", to which his reforms were a reaction. But these reactions occurred 40 years before their equivalent in the Netherlands, at a time when cycling was still strong in the UK.

Belisha made the UK's roads relatively safe, and established a new relationship – a new peace, or truce – between motorists and what we now call "vulnerable road users" – a tremendous achievement. And this truce lasted a long time – his standard speed for traffic in urban areas is still our standard. But because it predated the main expansion of motor traffic and motor-centric urban planning, that only really got going after the war, Belisha's truce did not do enough to prevent the decline of cycling and walking in the longer term. And when there was a final realisation that ever-expanding motor traffic was not a desirable objective, Belisha's truce meant the safety pressures were not so strong in the UK as they became in the Netherlands. There was never, at any particular moment, the same conjunction of social forces in the UK as there was in the Netherlands in the early 1970s, where the oil price shocks, the Kindermoord campaign, the setting up of the Fietsberad, and the beginnings of the green movement, with the realisation that motor-dominated transport was unsustainable, all came together to push the government to start re-planning the Dutch environment to prioritise cycling.

I am sure that much more could be found out about why cycling diverged so much between the UK and the Netherlands in the 20th century, and it is a subject that I am not aware anybody has researched comprehensively. Here would be a good subject for someone who wants to do a useful PhD in social and political history.

The year 1934 was the high-water mark of British cycle infrastructure development. The hostile attitude of many UK cyclists, and particularly the entrenched attitudes of the CTC, towards cycle-specific infrastructure, coupled with the pressure from the explosion of motoring, meant that the British cycle infrastructure of the inter-war years withered, never to be properly restored. Cycling in the UK declined catastrophically, to become a mere sub-culture, guarded over by the CTC, who doggedly continued to defend a "right to ride" on the roads that had become merely theoretical to the vast mass of people. At the same time, pedestrians remained relatively satisfied with Belisha's truce, even canonising his beacon in their logo, and continued to be relatively satisfied with the post-war "road safety"culture, which re-emphasised the domination of the motor vehicle on the streets, because most of them had become motorists as well. The interests of the few, hardy, mostly adult male, remaining cyclists were never seen as coinciding strongly enough with an imperative to make the roads safer for all, particularly children, for there to be the kind of street design revolution that occurred in the Netherlands, and, to a lesser extent, in Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Finland.

Yet I will refer to one more snippet from the Guardian blog article. It says that one A. Lancaster Smith wrote to the Guardian in 1934 to say that:
I believe that in Holland these tracks are laid down beside a great number of roads. What one nation has done another can do.
The statement remains obviously true. The Netherlands was ahead of the UK then, and today, if we measure from the Kindermoord year, they are about 40 years ahead. Yet similar nations do often do similar things at very different times. That 40 year interval is the same period as elapsed between the Belisha's year of "mass murder" and the Kindermoord. The story tells us it is never too late to catch up, and, indeed, never too late to get ahead. As Hembrow says, ringingly, of the success of the Dutch pattern of cycle planning:
The gift to the world that is offered by the Netherlands is the demonstration that all this is possible. It is possible in a comparatively rich, democratic, Western European country where people can afford to own and use cars. What’s more, it is affordable. The Dutch have repeatedly shown that investing in cycling is not only good for the physical and mental health of the nation, but also that it’s an effective fiscal measure. The cost of building the world’s best network of the world’s best quality of cycling infrastructure is less than the cost of not building it.
It is indeed a gift to the world, just as the British invention of the railways was our gift to the world in the 19th century. It may be worth remarking that, in May 2011, the Netherlands was ranked as the "happiest" country in the world by the OECD. How much of this happiness can we put down to the cycling infrastructure? If cycling makes people "happy", as I firmly believe it does, the answer must be "quite a lot".

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the best way we could thank the Dutch for their demonstration of what is possible for cycling, and maybe even happiness, in our type of society would be, even after all these years, for us in Britain to imitate them again, and to pick up where we left off in 1934.

9 comments:

  1. Re: the 1934 traffic act which introduced speed limits, Robert Davis quotes the astonishing Lieut-Col JTC Moore-Brabazon MP (!) who opposed the bill because:

    "It is true that 7000 people are killed in motor accidents, but it is not always going on like that. People are getting used to the new conditions... No doubt many of the old Members of the House will recollect the number of chickens we killed in the old days. We used to come back with the radiator stuffed with feathers. It was the same with dogs. Dogs get out of the way of motor cars nowadays and you never kill one. There is education even in the lower animals. These things will right themselves."

    A lot of people really do seem to think child murder is just fine so long as it's done with a car.

    --Joe

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  2. Really interesting, thorough piece - thanks. As an advocate for more child-friendly communities, I try to join the dots between this and bike-friendliness. Am strongly of the view that infrastructure is crucial. An additional fact for you: the Netherlands also came top of a 2007 UNICEF table of child well-being in rich nations.

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  3. I don't get your argument as while most of the history is interesting it seems irrelevant. While both countries had parallels in development but decades apart the key point is that the Dutch changed path in the 1980s.

    Holland was much smaller, less developed, had the advantage of seeing where car dependence was heading and had a large North Sea Oil boom to fund their infrastructure. By that time The UK was much larger, more industrialised, dominated by mega metropolises, the economy was a basket case, and governments were developing massive public housing projects served by public transport (most of which are currently being torn down).

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  4. Very interesting post but I have to agree with Pertinax: there are many other forces at play than just activists.

    My response on this subject is here.

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  5. I think Pertinax and transportretort are missing the essential point. If cycling activists don’t have a vision of what works for cycling, why should politicians or transport planners? It’s news to me that the CTC has EVER embraced Dutch-style infrastructure and care needs to be taken with terminology. What will put Britain on the road to mass cycling is cycle tracks on major routes in urban centres (the Camden ones, for all their limitations, provide a rudimentary model). Cycle tracks are different to cycle paths, which are off-road routes which tend to wander away from direct routes and in the UK are often shared with pedestrians. And we all know what cycle lanes are...

    The striking thing about the CTC is that historically it seems to have never referenced the Dutch model other than very occasionally (e.g. cherrypicking Dutch statistics for its ‘safety in numbers’ thesis). Even today the CTC is plainly very lukewarm about the separation principle (see numerous statements by Roger Geffen) and is standing solidly behind its ‘Hierarchy of Provision’ strategy. The CTC’s notion of good practice is visible on its website.

    The history of the London Cycling Campaign is one of thirty years of campaigning to ameliorate the conditions of vehicular cycling. The LCC has never seriously embraced the Dutch model and even today prominent members insist that London’s streets are ‘too narrow’. The recent changes under the new Chief Executive are very welcome, of course, and it will be interesting to see what the results of the vote on the four campaign options are. The LCC’s innovatory embrace of the Dutch model strikes me as a bit tepid, although this may reflect concealed divisions within the organisation.

    The Green Party is the most progressive of the mainstream parties on transport issues, yet its cycling policy insists that the bicycle is a vehicle and cyclists belong on the road. If the Green Party can’t get cycling right, we shouldn’t be surprised that the three main parties don’t either.

    Portsmouth (mentioned on the transportretort blog) is an interesting example. It’s a flat, compact city which should have a massive cycling modal share. But the infrastructure isn’t there and the city’s targets for increasing cycling have dismally failed. There’s no reason to believe that the city-wide 20 mph zone is going to kick-start cycling. The city’s local cycling campaign group does not appear to be insisting firmly on the Dutch model as the way forward. On the contrary, it isn’t mentioned (as far as I’m aware – correct me if I’m wrong). Instead local campaigners do what they pretty much do everywhere – campaign for extra bike stands here and there, a few more ASLs, a new cycle lane, all the usual vehicular cycling infrastructure.

    I think what David is saying is that all cycle campaigners in Britain need to embrace the Dutch model as the way forward and to speak with one voice to the politicians. Historically they have not done so. On the contrary they have effectively collaborated with the growth of the car by insisting that cyclists share the road with motor vehicles. If that is what he is saying, then I agree with him.

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  6. If the lack of segregated facilities is the reason for the low modal share of cycling in the UK, why do places like Stevenage, Milton Keynes & Peterborough have few people cycling to work?

    Such places were built to allow quick and convenient car access. If it's quicker to get from A to B by car than by bicycle, people will go by car however good the cycling infrastructure. The reason for certain places in the UK having a high cycling modal share is that (for reasons which have nothing to do with cycling) cars are rather inconvenient to use. E.g. central London

    So instead of worrying about segregation verses integration, we should be forming alliances with groups which are also disadvantaged by planning which gives a high priority to motoring convenience.

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  7. Pertinax, yes you are right that "the key point is that the Dutch changed path in the 1980s". But the NL, however, was certainly not "less developed" than the UK in the 1980s (what on earth does that mean?), and I don't see a case for economic differences as being responsible for the different way cycling developed there. The reasons were "political", in the broad sense.

    Transportretort, you make some interesting points in your "response" which certainly have a part in the story. However, your conclusion that:

    "the differing financial support and political commitment to cycling as a form of transport appears to me to be the really fundamental difference"

    just pushes the question one stage back and does not answer it "fundamentally" . What were the reasons for the differing political commitment?

    George Riches, the infrastructure in Stevenage, Milton Keynes and Peterborough is poor. Driving is too convenient and cycling not convenient enough. And also the town planning was not good enough. Yes, the reasons for (relatively) high cycling in central London are the "push" factors, not the "pull" ones – the alternatives are dire. Your last paragraph creates a false opposition. We need to do both these things: we need to make the alliances, but also we do need to worry about what methods of promoting cycling actually work. Otherwise we will make no progress.

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  8. Further to Transportretort's point, and David's response, 'Cycling: the way ahead for towns and cities' adds, "Politicians and technicians are more timorous than any other group of persons questioned [in surveys examining the acceptability of measures to reduce car use], including motorists, perhaps because they confuse their own mobility requirements with those of the average citizen."

    A garbled, contradictory message from campaigners adds to their concerns, resulting in indecision. Freewheeler is therefore quite right to say: "all cycle campaigners in Britain need to embrace the Dutch model as the way forward and to speak with one voice to the politicians."

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  9. Oh, just returning to this post to copypaste from my previous quote. I missed the rest of the conversation, so I was unable to point out that in the 2001 census Peterborough, with all its far from perfect British infrastructure, actually had a cycling rate far above UK average and above similar sized and demographic towns. (Of course, insert the usual caveats that the census only measured commuter share, and nowhere in the UK comes anywhere close to NL.) Peterborough looks like an unexplored and uncelebrated example. I keep meaning to go look at what's going on there...

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