Wednesday 1 January 2014

Britain's suburbs: cul de sacs of the mind

In Bristol, the proposal to convert Crews Hole from a rat run to a one way street and segregated bike path just got killed. By the local residents- the people who, in theory, would benefit the most. With the backing of the local cyclist hating paper, a paper willing to print letters from readers complaining that they saw seven cyclists on the road.

Over in wales, anti bike path campaigners are claiming that a bike path that goes behind the graveyard is "disgusting and disrespectful". Surely it is co-opting the already dead as a way to make their opposition of a bike path that is disgusting and disrespectful? But no, they try and blame the cyclists of their prejudices, but it shows on one quote "Is bad enough having a bike path behind your house, but ..."?

And the local paper lapped it up without calling the arse end out, to ask "why is it so bad to have a bike path behind your house?" A that would ensure that they could cycle into town safely 

These people live in the suburbs -and want to stay in their cul de sac lifestyle. They don't want to pedal anywhere. They want to drive to the shops. They don't want to cycle with their kids to school -they want to drive there. If they have unrealised transport aspirations -it is for a newer car, no doubt an urban SUV to impress the neighbours. If there is something they like complaining about when not whining about cyclists is will be parking: how the yellow lines on the main road stop them nipping out to the shops round the corner, how they don't go into "the city" no more, because there is no free parking -something they will blame on an anti-car council, and of course, the cyclists.

It is these fuckwits that show the flaw in the "build it and they will come story". They moved to the suburbs because they wanted a motorised lifestyle: a quiet road with no through traffic or parking problems, the expectation that they can drive everywhere -that it is their right. Anything that impedes on this right is a sign of the war on the motorist. They have to blame the inner city congestion problems on anti car councils because the alternative is to admit their own dream is flawed. They put down their bicycles when they grew up, and don't want to get back on. Adults who do cycle are foreign, ever metaphorically, or literally: European -and you can guess what they think of Europe. They only way they can imagine adults using a bicycle is as a hobby -hence the references to Wiggins in their vitriolic letters to the local papers; hence the sneering at MAMILs.

Their lifestyle is fucked. The growth of the suburbs is what creates the traffic jams: in Bristol that is on the M32 and the A4174, but it is also in all the suburban rat runs for the school run, the decaying high street killed by the suburban shoppers preferring the superstores. Their little cul de sacs have their own parking problems, with each resident building up the idea that the stretch of road in front of their semi detached house is "theirs", and not the neighbours or their friends. The two car household is universal -and now the three car household is upon them, as the children need them too, once they're old enough. To fit that many, the front garden walls go, is greenery turned into a wasteland tarmac, and a once pleasant row of gardened houses turned into a drab grey line of driveways with ageing cars. And now, whenever anyone leaves the cul de sac, they pay £1.30+ a litre, whining as they do.

These people may seem a relic of the past -and they are, they are the baby-boomers with their post war dream of a cul de sac they could call their own. But they have power.

They have the power to fight change in their suburbs -to resist the imposition of cycling on them. Which is how they view it. Not an opportunity, but a threat: propose to build it and they will come out fighting.

They are also a key voter group. There's a fuck of a lot of them -and they turn out to vote., When they aren't writing letters to their piss-poor local papers -papers that knows these are the only people who actually buy their papers- they are deciding who to vote for. Which comes down to two parties: the UKIP and the conservative.

You may look at the UKIP cycling manifesto and laugh at their checklist of the newspaper commentators: cycle registration, MoTs, licenses, insurance, enforcement of "cyclists dismount" signs, an end to council profiteering from issuing parking tickets, an end to the war on motorists. Oh, and mandatory helmets and hi-viz. But don't laugh that much. Because these are things the suburban voters want, and if the UKIP have it on their manifesto then the conservatives are looking at it too -too keep those voters themselves.

In the US it is some of the local politicians coming out against cyclists. Here it is Pickles,  buttocks of the Conservative party, who isn't ever going to cycle because he doesn't want to wear rubber trousers. Who complains that Cambridge has gone too far in supporting cycling. Who thinks that it is everyone's right to block a bike lane or a bus lane to buy a packet of fags from the corner shops. A man who speaks "common sense" in a northern accent to the masses who live in their cul de sacs and call Mr Owen two doors down as odd as sometimes he gets on a bicycle.

The fact that they are a key voter group -a group drifting towards the UKIP  is shaping all government policy: the referendum on EU membership, immigration restrictions,  tax policy such as income tax, marital tax allowances, and of course fuel tax. These are the people referred to as the "hard working families", and it's why the government is happy to stuff the poor -they aren't the target market. It's also why Pckles is happy to stuff cyclists.

Fucking over local councils is a fantastic policy for the Tory party
  1. It appeals to the suburban drivers
  2. It appeals to rural drivers who hate being held up on "their" roads from city folk
  3. It makes for great "end the war on motorist" stories I'm the daily mail.
  4. It doesn't cost central government anything at all.
The last point is key: Pickles doesn't need to go to Osborne and ask for cash. All he needs to do is get legislation out to stop the councils doing things. And if they claim their budgets suffer -that just reinforces the war on motorist story that the councils just do it for the cash.

For Pickles and the conservative party, encouraging parking at the expense of cyclists is a low cost way to appeal to their votes

What can we do do overcome these suburban policies and voters?

We could just wait for the ageing voters to die. The problem here is that they will be getting out and voting for at least another decade, and they are going to get even more reactionary. If UKIP gets stronger it's going to drive the Conservative party manifestos. This is going to push cycling even more into the background of the country's transport policy.

We could hope -or even work-to get the Tory party out of power. That runs two risks. It could split the cycling activists, who will have to choose between cycling policies they agree with or other national policies. It could also politicise cycling, pushing the conservatives from a neglect of cycling to active opposition. 

Convert the polticians case by case, councillor by councillor, MP-by-MP. That needs people in the suburbs to push for "a better transport policy". Not cars vs bikes, but just emphasise how much their current policy has failed. fuel prices aren't coming down, congestion still bad, public transport worse.  Though the Crew's Hole debacle shows this is going to be hard -and Boris the Blamer shows that the delivery doesn't match the promises.

Step 1 will have to be the local elections. Step 2? The next general election won't be until 2015, but we don't just want every party saying "we like bicycles" -we want the individual MPs to come out and do it.

Win the PCC election and set the agenda. If they continue to exist, we have to take them out of the control of the suburban voters with their narrow minds, and own them by the inner city voters. Which, given the turnout, is potentially easier to achieve than gaining influence in council elections. Right now only the daily mail reading elderly came out to vote -which is why there's a wanker in Cambridgeshire who views fighting rogue cyclists as his key achievement, while not recognising that the death of a 16 year old cyclist could be considered important.

Whatever happens though, it is going to emphasise the growing divergence between the city and the suburbs. Which is going to remain a barrier to cycling infrastructure in those suburbs, as well as a driver for government policy and funding. Somehow we need to win over thos suburbs

Any other ideas?


  1. Some generalisation aside, this post nails it for me. The issue is that local politicians and planners haven't figured out how to sell changes in street layouts to the people who will benefit - the local residents. Instead everything gets typecast as "for cyclists" or "war on the motorist".

    For my money, the best way forward is to allow residents input into the design of their streets, along the lines of the Sustrans DIY Streets scheme:

    In Crews Hole, the local residents did actually whip up an alternative proposal which would have involved traffic calming measures. With Council approval and a bit of input from a clued-up street designer, this could have made a positive difference to the route for everyone, except the berks using it as a 40 mph cut-through. Unfortunately it was a bit thrown-together and the local politicians basically feigned ignorance of it.

    It's probably a bit of a stretch for most people to imagine their street becoming a Woonerven but there are a few of these up and running in Bristol already (the Dings, one over in Southville) and the benefits are pretty obvious - nicer environment, less danger for kids, increased house prices, even better car parking. Even if, like the residents of Hanham, you seem to hate kids, there are a lot of potential selling points.

    If that takes care of the residential streets, the actual cycling-as-transport bit could be taken care of by a national policy that every time a through route or high street gets remade or even resurfaced, a proper segregated cycle route has to be installed. Politically that's a much tougher sell, as it would involve removing a lot of the on-street parking that Pickles and his ilk regard as essential to the national economy, but it could be done in one fell swoop by a government minister with the appropriate level of WGAS. It would also avoid the need for finicky indirect "quietways" networks which would have to be won one street at a time.

  2. well I was going to keep on voting UKIP, but after reading about their cycling proposals, never again... it will be Green Party from now on by me...