On Yer Bike

“A society sufficiently sophisticated to produce the internal combustion engine has not had the sophistication to develop cheap and efficient public transport?’
‘Yes, boss… it’s true. There’s hardly any buses, the trains are hopelessly underfunded, and hence the entire population is stuck in traffic” –  Ben Elton, Gridlock

(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)

This week’s column has been inspired by a couple of things. The first is Alistair Davidson’s excellent piece on Bella Caledonia talking about Glasgow’s quiet urban transport revolution. The second is my current gripe with South Lanarkshire’s own transport strategy which actively limits my ability to “do the right thing” when it comes to my own transport reform.
(Yes…if you read my article a few weeks ago about my attempts to upgrade my home’s heating system…this article is very much in the same vein).
I have a fairly simply goal that, if achieved, will tell me that the coming transport revolution has reached my corner of semi-rural Scotland. I want to be able to cycle to my nearest town and cycle back with my shopping instead of driving.

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The first challenge will be getting a bike. This is the easiest bit. Just buy one, right? Perhaps, though that depends on my finances supporting that – especially if I want an e-bike with a decent cargo capacity and the power to help move it. Sure, some help from the Scottish Government is possible here – though if I’m someone who is struggling to buy a bike outright I might also struggle to pay back even an interest free loan. It’s not just the cost of the bike. Accessories, safety kit, somewhere to safely store the bike. Those things will add up and not all of them would be covered by the Scottish Government assistance. The shopping I want to buy is getting pricey enough as it is.

If it was an option to give up my car entirely, it’d be a no-brainer – cars are expensive things but one that I only use for longer journeys costs just as much to maintain as one I use for all of my transport everywhere.
Private purchase makes more sense for bikes than for cars but it doesn’t make total sense. When we start thinking about the Circular Economy, the same logic applies. The first principle must be to reduce material use wherever possible. That doesn’t just mean “build bikes instead of cars” (though it does mean precisely that), it also means “don’t build bikes that sit in a parking space for as long as a typical car does”. Wherever possible, we should be reducing the private ownership of transport in favour of rentals. In an ideal world, I would like my village municipal council to own and maintain a fleet of vehicles for hire on a not-for-profit basis. I’m sure it would be possible to devise some kind of semi-modular kit whereby we could determine current transport needs for the village and work out how big that fleet would be and what it would be composed of. Turning this community from one of 1,000 private fossil-fuel cars to one of 1,000 private electric cars AND 2,000 private electric bikes is “Net Zero”, but it’s far from a “Green New Deal”. However, imagine we could instead turn it into a village of, say, 500 e-bikes, 50 cars, three vans, a mini-bus and however many accessible transport vehicles the local National Care Service Community Hub determines is needed so that residents with disabilities can remain mobile. This should also link in to broader public transport with an improved bus service at the very least (As much as I’d love to see the restoration of the local rail line we lost to Beeching, I think this is unlikely in the next few years).

This is a very different economic model from the one we’re currently used to and would have the effect of substantially reducing the GDP of the local area in terms of its transport needs (and fuel costs, maintenance costs, financial service provision etc) and yet it would substantially increase the Wellbeing of the community. Knowing this, it’s disappointing that when the Scottish Government published its Local Government Wellbeing Economy Toolkit this week, it still promoted “inclusive” and “sustainable” growth and promoted GDP as one of the “important indicators of how our economy is functioning and contributing to economic objectives.” that will “continue to feature prominently in Scotland’s economic monitoring and reporting”. A Wellbeing Economy is not one that says “GDP Growth is fine, just make it help Wellbeing too”, it’s one that says that increasing Wellbeing can actively reduce GDP and this should be considered a goal and a success story when it happens.

So I have my bike. Time to go shopping. Except…how do I get there? There are two main routes leading out of the village plus half a dozen smaller roads – some more like farm tracks.

It’s easier going south from the village. There’s a pathway well separated from the road for most of the way to the next village although it is shared with pedestrians and horses which will limit its ultimate capacity. In fact, going south through South Lanarkshire is getting increasingly accessible by bike. With some counter-productive exceptions – like a nearby section of road where cyclists are asked to merge from the pathway onto a dual-carriage way at the same time as drivers are being asked to merge INTO that cycle lane – it’s just about possible to cycle to the southern tip of South Lanarkshire on either pathways or painted cycle lanes (which, yes, are far from ideal but they’re something at least).

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(I’m not kidding about that cycle lane – do you know of an even better example of how to use transport policy to actively murder a cyclist and cause a traffic accident? Let me know).

However, the shop I want to go to lies in the opposite direction and I can’t safely cycle north from my village at all. The main road is the former spinal trunk road running from Glasgow to Carlisle – now largely supplanted by the M74 motorway but still a strategic diversion route for the motorway whenever it closes. The volume of heavy traffic such as trucks is high (and would have been much higher if plans to build an incinerator next to the road hadn’t been shelved after a yet another successful public campaign). Enough people have been killed or injured on this road in my lifetime that the largest barrier against me meeting my goal is that I simply do not feel safe cycling on that road. The “official” diversion from the section of road I’m worried about takes a cyclist through multiple farm tracks, down and then back up a steep valley and adds significant distance to the journey. The track is also used by farm vehicles and isn’t lit at night.

In Alistair’s article there is a graphic of the hierarchy of transport that we need to seriously apply everywhere that uses transport. In my case, that surely means redevelopment of the roads around my village so that cyclists can guarantee continuous, segregated routes to essential services. If this makes it slightly harder for drivers, that’s not a design flaw but an active means of encouraging more cyclists but it needn’t mean constant conflict everywhere. Indeed, avoiding points of conflict should be the goal. Cyclists shouldn’t have to merge into dual carriageways. Pedestrian crossings in residential areas should be designed in a way that puts the pedestrian first, not the car and services themselves should be given planning permission based on how easy it is to walk or cycle to them – if it is only possible to drive to a service like a shop then perhaps it’s in the wrong place.

My main point in all of this is again similar to the one I made when talking about heating. There is only so far I can personally take myself towards the goal of being able to cycle for my shopping as the “personal choice” to “do the right thing” costs money I don’t have and puts me in significant personal danger. It will take a substantial system change to enable it to happen. Between Government policies like the push for active travel and the (at least partial) adoption of Wellbeing Economics, the rhetoric is certainly close to being there but that’s not enough in itself. We need to see the complete adoption of all aspects of those philosophies and the complete integration of them into policy-making. They cannot simply be warm words and headline grabbers to be compromised on the moment some oil baron points out that cyclists don’t buy as much petrol and that makes their shareholders sad and now they want to pull out of their “investments” in Scottish renewables or land. Then we need to see the resources and investment to make it all happen – if someone from South Lanarkshire Council wants to get in touch so we can cost out one of those modular vehicle hire kits then my door and email inbox is open. Finally we need to see the political will to take the responsibility for making what would be a majorly disruptive (in the positive sense) change to the transport policy of Scotland.

So what do I need to be able to cycle for my shopping? I need help. I need you to contact your local councillors and MSPs and to tell them that you also need a Green New Deal transport strategy in your community and that while you know that they already agree with you, their rhetoric isn’t enough. It must turn to action. We need to see the policies impact our lives and start changing them for the better.

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3 thoughts on “On Yer Bike

  1. The SG bike loan scheme was credit checked. I failed it. It was poorly advertised with low uptake..on purpose I believe. What do they do with the Council bikes like Next Bike they replace I wonder? There are hundreds never used. I see just eat /deliveroo guys on electric bikes around me here. Good on these guys! Son lives out your way. Was renting – oil heated-but got council regen property carstairs junction, with some wind recycle heating/water system. low cost run. Can’t get gas out that way. That’s what killed of development sell off by council of that land previously. Scot Gov has to get a move on.

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  2. Create an economy based on cycling, reduce the GDP, and everyone’s well being will be improved

    As a concept I don’t think so.

    Cycle pulled ambulances, cycle pulled deliveries of everything from building materials ( wood and thatch? ) to cycle powered machinery to make everything from drugs ( willow bark, unprocessed poppy) to food ( unpasturised milk,seasonal foods ) to clothes ( grass skirts, wool underpants, socks and jerseys )

    Yes people want to be more environmentally friendly. But going back to the cave, or sorting everything through the bicycle, is never going to fly.

    But think of this as a grim side comment. If we keep putting more and more weaponry into Ukraine we might just provoke the big one, the nuclear conflagration. And wouldn’t that we good for the planet. Ridding the planet of parasitical levels of humankind is probably the best environmental option available.

    Might be cynical but hey ho – the world for some is a cycle.

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