To Change The Car Culture Should We Abandon Most Of The Town?

Change is always difficult , especially when there’s a large vested interest determined to use its inertia to prevent movement. Yet if we want to move the UK’s towns & cities from being significantly car-dependent, we will have to deal with this problem.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how this could be done - part of me just wants to start a revolution (the full Красное октябрь deal, complete with blood on the streets, and a good long wall to line the bastards up against), while I know that in reality this couldn’t be done. Despite what people might believe when they take part in Critical Mass / World Wide Naked Bike Rides / Whatever, I think all these events do is entrench the attitudes of people who drive cars, but who could potentially ride a bike.

Even when they are a form of legitimate protest against the hegemony of motorised transport, these activities alone will not produce the desired results.

What’s needed is a wider vision, linked to where we are now via a series of practical steps. So if I were putting together a strategy for where I live, I’d focus first on what I’d want it to look like in a distant, but not forever away timescale - ten to twenty years’ time. I’d try and come up with a succinct summary for this. Something like,

By 2025, more people will cycle than drive for journeys wholly within our town.

Then I’d try to figure out how to get there. The problem I’d face is what Machiavelli wrote almost 500 years ago:

…there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things, because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.

The key to success lies in overcoming that last sentence, and giving people from the middle ground the opportunity to experience the new town we’re proposing. At my presentation to the Darlington Cycling Campaign a couple of weeks ago, Mike Barker, the local Parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrats suggested that we could only make small changes - on the chart below he was talking about using the tactics from the top left, to tackle problems on the far right of the horizontal scale. Problems that are so significant as to be overwhelming:

I think he was wrong - the need for change is urgent, and the scale of change we need large. In these circumstances, "Participative Evolution" would be like fiddling while Rome burns / re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic / sticking a plaster on a severed artery. But equally, I very much shy away from any kind of Dictatorial or Charismatic Transformation - both for ethical reasons (dictatorships all tend to end in bloodshed, and we already have enough blood on the streets), and more pragmatically, because people tend to push back against what dictators try to force them into.

And BTW - is what Boris is up to in London an example of Charismatic or Dictatorial Transformation? Or does it take more than some blue paint in a bus lane to change car drivers’ attitudes?

Whatever. I think there was some truth in what Mike Barker said. More to the point, given that the tactics best employed depend on the situation, AND that situation changes in response to previous changes, I think I may have a solution:

  1. Most cycling campaign groups are small . You may have hundreds of members, but the chances are that 80% of them are fairly inactive, and you’re outnumbered by the Daily Mail reading public, your local authority’s traffic engineers (who have degrees in traffic - i.e. motorised traffic - management), the police (who view anything that inconveniences motorists as a green light for road rage. And you wouldn’t believe the paperwork that creates), local shop owners (who oppose anything to make driving to their premises harder than very easy indeed), etc. Under such circumstances, you can deploy all the ground troops you want, with the only affect that casualty numbers go through the roof. This is NOT the way to go - you need to focus your efforts.
  2. Pick an area of your town / city, and decide to win there. Abandon the rest of the town to the cars. Ideal areas could be those around a popular school, a single route leading between where students live and a university, or a commuting route leading to the town hall / council offices.
  3. Make friends with the politicians who represent the people in this area. Make friends with the organisation (school / university / large employer / etc) that’s your focal point. Make friends with the local shops. Make friends with the people at the churches. Make friends with the local paper’s editor and journalists. Make friends with pretty much everyone you can.
  4. Now the hard bit. Get as much of the funds for the whole town’s cycling infrastructure allocated to this one area as you can. Pitch it to people as a pilot project - you’ll have to get some evaluation done to prove the impact of the massive investment you’re proposing. Maybe those nice people at Sustrans can help with this bit? Make sure that this targeted improvement gets framed as a project - with a definite outcome (e.g. "To get 25% of students at Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College using a bike as their primary mode of transport…") and a deadline for completion ("…within five years").
  5. You must have the politicians and traffic engineers on side (they may need to go on a study trip to The Netherlands to see first-hand what’s required ). If you’ve done this, then the change tactics involved can be those of Forced Evolution - relatively minor for the town as a whole, but radical for your area of focus.
  6. Get early evaluation data on every change made. Use this to justify expanding your project into the adjacent areas of the town. Over a decade or two, you can take the whole town . . .
  7. But REMEMBER - take it street-by-street, neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood, district-by-district. Try to do it all at once, and you’ll end up back at square one.

That’s the way I’d tackle the problem. But I may have got it all wrong (being as I am, a tiger of little brain) - a can already see potential problems with the creation of cycling ghettos, but is the general thrust in the right direction?


Filed under: Bike Culture, Everyday People, Politics

8 Responses to “ To Change The Car Culture Should We Abandon Most Of The Town? ”

  1. Tom R on April 6, 2010 at 11:58 am

    I think you might be right - I tend to agree that it seems pointless putting money into a whole conurbation to make lots of ok cycling facilities/promotions - far better to go for a really good scheme in one place and then get some really good results and move on from there.
    Also - good to see evaluation mentioned - this is a real problem that gets overlooked.

  2. Catherine Lutz on April 6, 2010 at 7:05 pm

    Great ideas. Additionally, to really get at entrenched attitudes to the car, look at where they come from: check out the new book, Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez, Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and its Effect on Our Lives. and!/pages/Carjacked-by-Catherine-Lutz-and-Anne-Lutz-Fernandez/152633627554?ref=ts

  3. Gareth on April 6, 2010 at 9:21 pm

    I think that focusing as you suggest is more likely to be successful. One additional thought - focus on the town centre - if you can get good links to facilities like the railway station, the people who live nearest will start to use them and you can grow outwards. This seems to working in Sheffield

  4. Modal Shift | Combing my hair.... on April 7, 2010 at 8:30 pm

    [...] we can’t all live and work in gentrified Manhattan. Secondly a thought provoking post by Karl McCraken questioning whether if to effect change cycling advocates should abandon widescale action and focus [...]

  5. Gareth on April 7, 2010 at 8:57 pm

    Have been thinking about this tactic quite a bit today and am convinced. But I think that winning hearts and minds locally can only be part of the answer, tilting the die in favour of local development has to happen at a national level through changes to planning guidance. Have blogged about it here

  6. Karl On Sea on April 7, 2010 at 9:20 pm

    Tom - lol - instead of doing lots of things to a mediochre standard, lets try doing a few things right? I’d vote for that!

    Catherine - your book’s been on my Amazon wish list for far too long . . .

    Gareth - Yep - I particularly like your point about the impact of the urban sprawl. A development 10 miles from the city centre might as well be on Mars as far as the average driving commuter is concerned.

  7. wuppidoc on April 12, 2010 at 6:39 am

    Karl is right, we need to start in our neighbourhood. But anyone who is able to approach politicians in her or his town should do that to talk to them about the general development of the community this person wants to improve (do they want to or just improve their careers?).

    I think it is important to point out to councillors that any politician talking about young people, education, unsocial behaviour, chavs, emancipation, health, obesity and all these so much loved cutsy pie community projects has to start to talk about motorised traffic and its impact on the community. Councillors tend to think in boxes e.g.: “young people and their needs” full stop.

    That motorised traffic and the lay out of the urban space in favour of cars have anything to do with young human beings and their needs, that not just the transport councillor has to ponder on this lay out (which is normally in his or her brain just oriented to prevent congestion thus building more space for cars), that the “young people councillor” has to hunt in the political premises of the transport councillor to change things for a better future of young people is looked at being competitive and blasphemic. So transport stays with transport and young people with young people and nothing is changed.

    This thinking in boxes of political responsibilities has to be tackled. You can take any political box and look at the impact of motorised traffic on it, you will be suprised how affected nearly everything is by our urban space lay out. Take the real estate market for example………………

  8. wuppidoc on April 12, 2010 at 6:42 am

    Oh, and Karl, I love your writing of Красное октябрь, where do you get kyrillic letters from?