Thursday, 30 May 2013

Cycling Embassy of Great Britain AGM in Newcastle

The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain was founded on 29 January 2011, at a meeting at Look Mum, No Hands café in London. The first AGM was held later that year in Manchester, and the second was held in Bristol. The third will be held this Saturday, 1 June in Newcastle upon Tyne. It will be part of a weekend of activities in collaboration with Newcastle Cycling Campaign, including rides, discussion workshops, and socialising. I hope to see many readers there.

The existence of the Embassy, founded by Jim Davis, has more or less coincided with the run of this blog; indeed, that I should purpose this blog towards cycle campaigning was suggested by a comment at the first AGM. I wish it hand't been, in some ways, as it has been so much work. My last post, for instance, on Copenhagen, took two working days to write, and most of them take at least one. Contrary to accepted wisdom that people don't read long blog posts, however, people seem to like them, and this blog has now had well over 200,000 hits.

Back to the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain: what has it achieved? It's hard to say, as it's hard to disentangle its history from all the other related events in the last two years: from the London flahrides, from the London Cycling Campaign's Love London Go Dutch campaign, from the Scottish Pedal on Parliament, from The Times's Cities Fit for Cycling Campaign, from the parliamentary debate on cycling, from the increased activity of the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group with its Get Britain Cycling report, from the Welsh Active Travel Bill, from the agreement of the Mayor of London to LCC's go Dutch principles and the publication of his Vision for Cycling in London.  Suffice it to say, that in that astonishingly short time, the landscape of what cycle campaigning is about, of what it believes it should be asking for, and what it believes could be achieved, has absolutely transformed. I think the Cycling Embassy deserves a very large part of the credit for this, a credit disproportionate to its small resources and small number of volunteers, though others not involved with it deserve much credit as well.

The Embassy was named to be reminiscent of the Cycling Embassy of Denmark, which existed before, and the Dutch Cycling Embassy, which came into existence, under that name, more recently, but it was not comparable with those, which are government–private sector initiatives to spread the cycling practices and cultures of those countries. The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain (I've never been quite sure why Northern Ireland was left out) was formed essentially to spread knowledge of best international cycle infrastructure practice in this country, knowledge its advantages and effects, and to lobby at a national level for the policies needed to make cycling into a mass activity, while also supporting local campaigns with the same objectives. The Embassy crystallised a feeling amongst many British cyclists that the fundamental thing that cycle campaigning should be calling for was high-quality dedicated cycling infrastructure on the continental (and particularly Dutch) model, and that this had not been happening under the stewardship of cycling's existing representative organisations, and that it needed to. The feeling underlying the foundation of the Embassy was that a new start was needed in terms of the policy basis, and evidence base used, in deciding on what to call for from government to promote cycling, and that many traditional ideas and strategies had been wrong or counter-productive.

Since then, the ideas that the Embassy spearheaded have gone mainstream and become widely-accepted. It is if an intellectual dam, that had been under pressure for years, but steadfastly withstanding that pressure, had suddenly given way, and a flood of ideas had been unleashed. Indeed it takes some effort now to recall how widespread was the opposition to the idea of providing separately for cyclists on the roads before 2011 (though it still is strong in some places, as ibikelondon mentioned yesterday).

Studies of the systems of cycling in the Netherlands and Denmark led the Embassy, from near its beginning, to be calling for a whole new infrastructure, not one just for existing cyclists, or for those currently on the margins of regular cycling, but one that would enable literally everyone to cycle, and that would be massively beneficial to society, the economy, and the life of the nation as a whole. It was the end of "pragmatic" or "conservative" cycle campaigning, that only called for small adjustments around the edges of our current road traffic system, that believed that the main route to more cycling could be found in the training and encouragement of cyclists to cycle on roads essentially as they were, and dwelled on improbable hopes for improved behaviour from drivers without appreciating the links between road-user behaviour and infrastructural design. It also represented a break from the "extreme green" school of cycle campaigning, that seemed to be in a world of its own in calling for roads emptied of cars. This had permeated existing campaigns deeply, giving rise to an unrealistic emphasis on traffic reduction as a basic method or first step, rather than on the practical allocation of dedicated space to cycling. While people had been campaigning on these premises, cycling had become marginalised on UK roads by the weight of motor traffic. We needed to start again.

The philosophy of the Embassy finally became official policy, at least in the capital, this year, with the publication of the Mayor's Vision for Cycling in London, with its writing from Boris Johnson that could in places have been lifted straight from Embaassy documents:
I want cycling to be normal, a part of everyday life. I want it to be something you feel comfortable doing in your ordinary clothes, something you hardly think about. I want more women cycling, more older people cycling, more black and minority ethnic Londoners cycling, more cyclists of all social backgrounds – without which truly mass participation can never come.

As well as the admirable Lycra-wearers, and the enviable east Londoners on their fixed-gear bikes, I want more of the kind of cyclists you see in Holland, going at a leisurely pace on often clunky steeds. I will do all this by creating a variety of routes for the variety of cyclists I seek.
A commonplace scene from the centre of Copenhagen, at the Amalienborg Palace; it would be hard to take its like in the corresponding location in London, outside Buckingham Palace, on any normal day. This is the situation the Embassy has sought to change.
In terms of policy detail, as well as general philosophy, the Embassy has been on the leading edge of thought. This was because its activists researched their subject thoroughly and put together a large collection of information on it, rather than relying on earlier prejudices, traditions and received opinions. The blogosphere of course has also been hugely influential, in providing a forum where complex concepts could be teased out and rationally debated at length, without the shouting-down that had characterised a lot of earlier cycling policy discussion. The famous Embassy Blog Roundup, compiled usually by Sally Hinchcliffe, has weekly, without fail, throughout most of the period of existence of the Embassy, combined information with entertainment in a thorough digest of what the cycling blogs were saying. (The LCC has now sort of copied this idea in its weekly emailed newsletter.)

One example of the Embassy influence on policy detail may be seen in attitudes to the cycling Hierarchy of Provision, enshrined in Department for Transport Local Transport Note LTN 2/08. One of the earliest policy decisions of the Embassy was to oppose the Hierarchy, on the belief that it had promoted the widespread creation of what everybody knows as "crap cycle lanes" in the UK, through its vagueness, lack of definition of quality cycling facilities, and failure to prioritise and promote the most effective methods of engineering for cycling used in other countries. Following concerted attack by bloggers linked to the Embassy, leading to a rethink by many professionals in the field, today it is hard to find people, either campaigners or professionals, who still support the Hierarchy, though there are a few, and it remains official guidance, unfortunately, showing we have work yet to do – see for example recent blogposts arguing for the replacement of the Hierarchy from ibikelondon and The Ranty Highwayman.

So where now for the Embassy, seeing that opinions on the core issues on which it has campaigned have shifted so far during the period of its existence? Can it become better-developed and better-organised to harness the energies of campaigners locally, regionally and nationally to achieve the change on the ground that we want to see? Can it become more practically useful? Does it need more structure? Should it at some stage be wound up, if there is wide consensus on the issues on which it sought to change attitudes? (It never sought to replace existing cycling organisations, but I would not support winding-up any time soon, as I think there is far more to be done.)

These will no doubt be the points debated at the third AGM of the Embassy in Newcastle, following with a review of what has been achieved so far. If you can come, and you support the Embassy, and would like to help shape the its future, we would be delighted to see you there. I for one will be very interested to cycle round Newcastle, having never been there, except for passing through on the train to Edinburgh (shame on me).


  1. Thanks for the great work - keep it up, it is appreciated by the large number of us who, despite being members of both CTC and LCC felt for many years failed by those organisations. The LCC now feels very different though the CTC still has some way to go.

    The CTC has an odd membership as well - the current magazine features a number of letters protesting about it's articles about mountain biking (actually referred to as 'rough stuff' as if the phrase mountain biking hadn't been in common use for 25 years).

  2. I'm looking forward to tomorrow, I've no idea what to expect!