Tuesday 12 August 2014

Lost visions of the 1980s: don't just blame sustrans

The post about the Lost Cycling Visions of the 1980s generated a fair few tweets faulting Sustrans.

Its not fair to blame them for the state of the UK's cycling infrastructure.

Blame them for

  1. Acquiescing to councils that want anti-cycling barriers on routes
  2. Acquiescing to councils that want gravel paths
  3. Approving the bedford turbo roundabout —and continuing to do so.
  4. Producing a set of design guidelines in 2014 that are truly dire
  5. Approving of the London Quietways
But don't berate them for building paths where they could. The real issue is: they didn't get to build paths where people are.

Why not?
  1. Lack of political will
  2. Space in towns considered too valuable for housing and other uses. Indeed, the Bristol-Bath path only got through the late 80s/early 90s precisely because those tram-assessed civil engineers in Avon County Council wanted it retained for their plans.
And why the lack of political will? Not enough people being noisy, and not enough clarity over what they wanted.

If you want someone to blame, and you cycled in the 20th century you know who to blame. Go and stand in a mirror. With your mountain bike.

Mountain Biking may be fun, but it's a sport, not a transport. The early MTBs may have taken mudguards and racks, and offered a sit-up position, but they evolved into suspension toys that are utterly unsuited to most commuting runs. Or at least, they would be in the NL. In the UK they can cope with the dropoffs that paths have, the gravel stretches, the bits where you have to brake hard and veer over in a different direction. People adopted bicycles that worked around the awfulness of UK cycle paths —and called it fun. And the mass market went with them, so hybrid bikes with heavy and mediocre front suspension are common. These are bikes that don't take mudguards, yet sold in the UK as urban, sold at a price that includes those awful coil-sprung forks that do nothing but increase weight. Even worse, the bike-shaped-objects often go for Unified Rear Triangle suspension —who hasn't despaired at the sight of a six year old on solid steel URT bike with a coil rear shock that even  a dedicated DHer would find overweight.

By embracing mountain biking as everyday transport, a large proportion of the UK cycling community effectively got out of caring about the quality of those cycle tracks that did get built.

As for you in the mirror: where were you? Did you accept what was given? Did you believe that the government and councils were going to make things better? Did you rely on others to be the campaigners —and did you know what they were asking for in your name?

Not sustrans then: you. 

Never mind.

Sustrans have to redeem themselves now by focusing on what they are good at: engineering, and pushing back on things that don't work: niceway codes, roundabouts with two-tier provisions that suck for both tiers, barriers on the paths, gravel. They need to recognise that their original goal, was what that 1985 book cited: paths that children, the elderly and families can all be happy using. Only: these paths must be in cities and alongside A-roads, not just somewhere quaint in mid-wales. Because while the NCN82 may be a lovely leisure route, it's not a commuter route. 

And for the people looking in the mirror, feeling slightly guilty over their inaction? It's not too late.

Freewheeler showed us all how dire everything really was; Hembrow an Mikael show how things can be different. tools like twitter help people find each other.

Just like Sustrans, we need to recognise what we want, and shout for it —together

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