Tuesday, 9 August 2011

It's a riot

The riots in London of the last 3 nights (of which there have been no sign in my unfashionable part of the capital, by the way) bring back memories of the 1980s, and Norman Tebbit's famous quote:
I grew up in the '30s with an unemployed father. He didn't riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking 'til he found it.
Of course it was much easier for an unemployed working-class man in the 1930s to go looking for work on a bike. It was far easier to ride a bike on the roads, as there were few motor vehicles. And there was a culture which made the bicycle a normal, standard and acceptable mode of transport for all classes, but for the working classes in particular – at least for those not so poor that they could not afford one. So the bicycle was a means to enterprise and betterment for the fairly poor man or woman – a means of expanding their horizons and area of opportunities. In a recession of course, there is a shortage of work, by definition, but mobility, particularly the inexpensive mobility offered by the bike, means that a wider area of opportunity can be exploited, with the corresponding increase in chances of gainful employment, or self-employment.

Mobility can be used to create work as well as to search for it; all transport is an engine of economic growth, and the bike, which consumes few resources in its own use, is a therefore a particularly potent engine for economic growth. So while Mark of the ibikelondon blog has a take on the relationship of the bike to the current troubles in London that is slightly negative and immediate, I want to consider a more positive view of the bicycle as a way out of the economic and social problems that afflict British cities and are, without doubt, a contributory cause of these riots, as they were of those in the 1980s.

In essence, Tebbit was right. The bicycle was a positive economic force before the Second World War in England that promoted social cohesion, made society less stratified, and gave opportunities. And the bicycle industry itself provided a lot of employment, when everything was "Made in England". On the leisure front, the bicycle allowed workers to escape cheaply and healthily from the industrial towns and cities on their days off, and it allowed an outlet for young people's energy, aggression and competitive spirit. Tebbit was right. There were not serious riots in England during the deep depression of the 1930s, and, though I suspect he did not mean this, I think a case can be made for this relative social harmony in time of great economic difficulty as being in part due to the bicycle – the great egalitarian mode of transport. Could the bicycle achieve the same again? I feel sure that it could, if we only allowed it to.

Considering the bicycle and its relationship to social cohesion and economic success, we should look at those European states which have done most to facilitate the bicycle in modern times: in order, these are the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, and Germany – all examples of extremely economically successful states, all with an exceptionally good reputation for social cohesion. As I pointed out in another post, the highest-cycling nation in the world, the Netherlands, has this year been ranked as the "happiest" in the world by the OECD. And, as a commenter on that post also told us, it also came top of a 2007 UNICEF table of child well-being in rich nations. The nature of this "child well-being" is indicated by the surprised comments of an Englishman who moved to the Netherlands:
We thought we knew the country quite well from our previous visits. We thought we knew how the Dutch cycled. But soon we discovered a myriad of things that not only had we overlooked when viewing the Netherlands through rose-tinted spectacles from the other side of the North Sea, but we never had any idea would be possible at all.
For instance, we knew that Dutch children cycled to school. However, we didn’t know that on average they do so unaccompanied from the age of 8 and a half, we didn’t know that most school trips were made by bike, we didn’t know that it was normal for primary school children to go cycle camping a class at a time, we didn’t know that some secondary school students rode a 40 km round trip every day to get to school, we didn’t know that after school discos which went on until after midnight the children would cycle home across the city alone without anyone worrying about it, we didn’t know that rural cycle paths used by school students would receive special priority for clearing of snow in winter, and we certainly didn’t have any idea at all that a school triathlon could consist of giving vague instructions to a swimming pool and running track 20 km away and letting the students find their own way there and back.
Also of interest is a video on YouTube from fietsya in which he asks a selection of Dutch cyclists various questions. It's rather long, but you only need to listen to the first bit to discover that they all started cycling between the ages of 1 and 5. Presumably they have all been cycling continuously since then. With some of the focus currently from the British media on the youthfulness of some of the rioters, and with politicians and police telling British parents that they must "keep their children at home" and "keep them under control", it is worth reflecting on this wholly different version of young people's independence. Now I don't want to romanticise the Netherlands, or claim that everything is perfect there and that there are no social problems or tensions there. But the Netherlands is certainly not known for its riots, unlike, for example, one famously car-centric city that comes to mind, Los Angeles.

If we had the type of cycle infrastructure in the UK, and the cycling culture in the UK, that they have in the Netherlands, that allows inner-city youngsters to easily escape their immediate, sometimes depressing, environments, if we had, say, great cycle paths that led right from Hackney to Hertfordshire, or from Clapham to Surrey, rather than the pathetic, difficult, nasty, obscure excuses for cycle infrastructure that we have on the paths up the Lea valley or down the River Wandle, wouldn't these at least give inner city kids more leisure opportunities and options to escape? When I was growing up I could cycle into the lanes of the New Forest in half an hour. I could get out into the countryside from my home in a small seaside town in five minutes. I pity the Inner London kids now; they may have plenty of technology, but irrespective of class or race, physically, there are literally trapped in a way that myself and my friends were not at their age.

I recall how when Camden Cycling Campaign proposed a high-quality cycle route running along Guilford Street in Holborn, in front of the Thomas Coram Foundation charity's buildings in Corams Fields, that provide facilities for underprivileged Central London kids, how Frank Dobson MP, a trustee of that charity, objected to the plan on the grounds that children from the Fields might get run over by cyclists! – totally failing to understand that quality cycle infrastructure on their doorstep would broaden the horizons of those young people, increase their independence, and improve their lives.

Moving on to the economic arguments for the bicycle, we are constantly assaulted by the charge from conventional political thinkers that "traffic", in the motorised sense, is associated with economic growth, therefore making space for the bicycle in a dense city like London, with the attendant necessary decrease of space for motor traffic, must be an economic cost, not an economic benefit. A cycling Conservative Member of the London Assembly, Andrew Boff, the Mayor's "cycling champion" indeed, in an extremely long and rambling monologue that that he was allowed to deliver yesterday in the guise of an "interview" on The Bike Show on Resonance Radio, seemed to be saying this, amongst many other things. He seemed to be saying that, though he agrees with some of the demands of cycle campaigners, going too far along the road of catering for the bike in London would snarl London's traffic up (as if it could be made much more snarled up than it is) and that this would damage the "engine of economic growth" that London, and the City of London, provides for the whole country, and prevent us from doing more of the things we would like.

But this just doesn't stack up. Several of the (relatively) cycle-friendly nations listed above have had better economic growth than the UK in modern times. Our addiction to the car, with the health and environmental costs this incurs, is an economic drain on our society. A report from the Fietsberaad, the Dutch Cyclists' Union, written by consultants Goudappel Coffeng, analysed the costs and benefits of the Dutch network of inter-city cycling superhighways, and concluded:
The proceeds that can be attributed to bicycle highways considerably outweigh the costs. The next couple of years approximately €100 million will be invested in bicycle highways in the Netherlands. That will lead to future annual profits of at least €144 million in travel time gained, better health and environmental benefits.
Catering for the bike is economically a gain. It's a positive on the national balance sheet from a purely financial perspective, never mind attempting to measure "happiness". For one thing, catering for the bike, Dutch-style, reduces congestion for cars, and reduces their journey times, which is an economic gain.

A bicycle-friendly nation would be expected to be more resilient in a world recession than a motor-dependent one, particularly in a recession which is, without doubt, in part linked to high oil prices. Which is what we indeed see. The Netherlands has an enviable record of high employment: in the last three years, the unemployment rate in the UK has been 6.6, 7.9 and 6.6%, while in the Netherlands the figures have been 2.8, 4.1 and 4.2%. Denmark has not done so well, having rates of 5.7, 7.6 and 7.5%. However, Denmark comes out particularly well on the Gini inequality index, having the most equal society in the world, with a Gini coefficient of 0.247, as compared to an EU average of of 0.31, a figure for the UK of about 0.37, and figure for the USA of 0.463.

Youth unemployment is currently at its highest rate in the UK for 20 years, with one in five 16- to 24- year-olds without work. The worst affected are ethnic minorities in the inner cities. Are the riots such a great surprise, therefore? Ian Sinclair, Hackney author and cyclist, speaking on Radio 4's The World at One today, thought not. Particularly in north-east London, where the gigantic public investment in creating the exclusionist corporate-fest of the Olympic park, far from "regenerating" the environment for the locals, has visibly involved taking from them much that they had. And as for the farce of the cycle routes to the fraudulently bought and sold "Greenest Olympics in history" well, that's another story.

Since the last general election, when the coalition came in with the determination to quickly reduce the UK's budget deficit, not by raising income tax, but by cutting expenditure, anyone looking at a local newspaper anywhere in the country will not have seen a week go by without seeing some report of sports clubs and youth activities disappearing due to the cuts to local council funding. Like Ian Sinclair, I am not in the least bit surprised at the results. What is the ancient proverb about "idle hands"?

There is a view that the riots in UK cities are principally about the grievances of “disqualified consumers”. If that is the case, I think the bicycle has something to tell us here too. It can be argued that the bike is just another piece of consumer property, an item that separates "haves" from "have-nots". Indeed, there were reports of a bike shop in London being looted, and rioters riding out on stolen bikes. And the bike in London has become mostly a tool of the middle-classes, far from the image of Norman Tebbit’s father in the Depression. Indeed, another odd thing about the Andrew Boff interview mentioned above is that he talks of a perception that the Blackfriars campaign is a lobby of “well-connected cyclists”! So, here, cycle campaigners have suddenly gone from the great Swampy-like tabloid “unwashed” stereotype to being merchant bankers and lawyers.

But I think this is probably a temporary UK issue, and a sign of the narrowness of our current urban cycling culture. There is something about the very nature of the bicycle that is fundamentally anti-consumerist, and classless. This is really that the bike is an essentially fixed quantity, unlike the computer, the mobile phone, the car, camera, stereo, or other gadget.

The bike was perfected, to all intents and purposes, more than a century ago, and cannot change much anymore, despite the best efforts of manufacturers. Apart from improvements to materials, and peripheral things like lighting, the bike is largely immune from the march of technology, and a well-kept ancient one is, for everyday purposes, pretty much as good as one fresh from the shop. The bike is a simple item, like a chair or a table, not a temporary, replaceable, consumer-desirable, envy for which the social theorists might use as some explanation for current events. The bike, by and large, is not a source of consumerist envy, and for those who like, or even love, their bikes, it provides a healthy distraction from things that could be – another sense in which I believe the bike is a force for social good.

I heard one man on the radio today today say how some of the youngsters he knows had not been raised by a mother and father, they had been “raised by a video game”. There is an African proverb that says it takes a whole village to raise a child. A child needs to be raised by a community, not by a video game, and, with the type of cities and communities within them that we have created, the bike, if we make it a mode of transport that is safe and easy for all ages to use, should allow youngsters to be more thoroughly a part of their communities, and therefore, be better brought-up.

So I think that, when considering the riots, and the economic and social background to them, when the media, as it might well do, associates the bicycle with the hooliganism of young people using two wheels to elude police and escape down obscure city passages, using the mobility granted by the bike to spread mayhem, we need to reflect in a more measured, long-term, evidence-based way on the relationship between the bike, economics, and social good. The bike is both an economic and a social good, and, as "man's most perfect machine", catering better for it holds out the possibility of lessening many of the "intractable" problems in British society that flare up every so often, as now, in times of economic distress.

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