The Great Big Cycling Backlash Roundup

Back in 2014, Transport for London’s Cycling Commissioner Andrew Gilligan presciently argued

Don’t think for a second that it’s over, we’ve taken a time to bring potential opponents on board but some of these plans and others will still I predict cause a lot of opposition. We are taking away road space, we are taking away parking, we are taking away some bus lanes. And that is where we need you. The next six months are going to be a test of strength. We will see whether the forces for cycling are stronger than the forces against cycling. 

Two years later, that prediction has largely come true - and not just in London, but across the country, as new cycling schemes have begun to pick up opposition.

Partly, this is a result of cycling infrastructure actually starting to make a meaningful difference to the way roads and streets are designed and used. Whereas in the past ‘cycle provision’ might have meant a bit of meaningless paint at the side of the road, or a footway which has had a blue sign added to it to allow cycling, the schemes that are garnering a backlash today are significant largely because they are impinging, to a greater or lesser extent, on the flow of motor traffic, and on the amount of space allocated to motor traffic in general. It is actually happening, and that has woken up objectors.

But, as we shall see in this ‘backlash’ roundup, a good deal of opposition is simply being generated by fear of the unfamiliar. Cycling infrastructure in Britain - proper cycling infrastructure - is very much an unknown quantity. It’s different, and represents change, and change means things could be worse, even if all the assurances and evidence suggests otherwise.

This is most obvious with those schemes that will have a negligible (or even non-existent) effect on motor traffic - for instance the Bears Way scheme in Milngavie on the outskirts of Glasgow. Only a small amount of space for motor traffic will be lost if the full scheme goes ahead - the only real issue is that buses are slightly harder to overtake when they pull into stops - but the scheme has generated local opposition, with the local paper encouraging its readers to sign a petition against it, and anger even extending to a death threat to council staff. One of the claims is that the new cycleway is ‘dangerous’ because drivers have crashed into… cars parked in a parking bay alongside it, which hints at the probable reason underlying the backlash against this scheme - it’s just different, and people are having to get used to it.

Similarly a new cycleway in Tynemouth - again, with little or no effect on motor traffic - attracted opposition from residents because it would ‘go in front of houses, across driveways [and] will also run right next to bus stops.’ While some of the verge has been lost, and lampposts have had to have been moved - and drivers may now have to wait momentarily behind buses stopping in the road, rather than pulling in to bus stops - it seems most likely here that the backlash has been generated by simple fear of the unknown.

Other probable explanations behind ‘backlashes’ are that these kind of schemes don’t appear to make sense, because (from the perspective of the objector) they are apparently catering for a tiny minority, or for a mode of transport that doesn’t even exist. We’ve seen a councillor in Birmingham claiming that cycling infrastructure is discriminatory, because it is only ‘for’ ‘young white men’ - the only people she sees cycling on a regular basis in the city. Cycling schemes should be about changing that demographic, and opening up cycling to everyone, so (if the scheme is good enough) this is a largely self-defeating objection. However, this hasn’t stopped London-based journalists making very similar-sounding claims about cyclists being very white, male and middle-class, and it is noteworthy how opponents of new cycling schemes consistently play on the type of clothing - lycra - they imagine all people cycling wear, a helpful way of presenting it as a strange, minority activity, not worthy of consideration by ‘ordinary’ people.

Sometimes the ‘backlash’ has extended all the way up to a court for judicial review; however, the two most well-known cases - the Walthamstow Mini-Holland and the East-West Superhighway in London - resulted in straightforward and predictable defeats for the opponents. Happily both of these cases now provide legal precedent that reinforces the consultation and decision making processes behind them, making further such use of them by councils and highway authorities even more assured than it was before.

And it is also likely that the recent spate of backlashes will improve the consultation process, and indeed the nature of the end product. Rather than just slipping out minor changes and hoping that nobody even notices, councils and authorities may now have to up their game, producing consultations that actually deliver substantive change, and selling those changes in a positive and aspirational way. This seems to have happened with Hackney’s Middleton Road proposals, which has now gone to a full and detailed consultation, with a series of options to choose from. Cycling consultations seem to be things the general public are engaging with - for better or worse - and that means they matter.  

This also applies to campaigners, who will have to up their game too. Knowing that there will be passionate and deeply felt discussion about a scheme can help drive even better campaigning from those of us in support of changes. During the consultation on the key East-West and North-South Superhighways in London, Cycling Works went from just a group of committed activists with flyers to a campaign with clear endorsement for change from 160 businesses in weeks. They also made some smart use of modern polling techniques to help establish not only the scale of support but the degree of change needed. Given the hostility to cycling as an apparent minority (or even ‘elite’) mode of transport, future responses to backlashes should certainly focus on how these schemes aren’t purely about ‘cycling’ at all but about creating more attractive towns and cities that simply work better for everyone, whether they want to continue driving or whether they want to try different modes of transport. It may be the case that cycling campaigns haven’t successfully managed to do this yet.

It’s not always possible to put a positive gloss on backlashes, of course - cycling schemes have been watered down in the face of opposition, or even abandoned altogether. Although the East-West Superhighway is something of a triumph - both in campaigning terms, and in resistance to serious and sustained objections - it has actually been watered down, its width being sacrificed in places to retain a motor traffic lane that would have been removed if the scheme had gone ahead as per the original plans, and Superhighway 2 lost a section of physical protection following objections from market traders, supported by politicians who had initially called for the upgrading of the Superhighway in the first place. Meanwhile unfavourable politicians continue to prevent any substantive cycling infrastructure being built in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, despite progress elsewhere. Political opposition in the New Forest even manifested itself as an attempt to divert cycle funding away into road widening schemes, and preventing cycling on tracks in the Forest used by HGVs.

More recently the Loughborough Junction trial scheme was abandoned early in the face of protests and complaints about alleged gridlock on the surrounding roads, and general difficulties with negotiating the area by car. The council losing its nerve also appears to have had a knock-on effect on a less bold scheme in the same borough; a proposed modal filter for New Park Road has been replaced with a trial traffic calming scheme in a bid to reduce rat-running. Meanwhile challenges to the Enfield Mini-Holland seem largely to have been mounted via the political arena, from politicians both outside of the context of the scheme and who on leaving office in the council seemed to change their minds about cycling. This is the perennial problem that substantive change requires a degree of political boldness and courage. Given that hostility to cycling schemes and the ‘chaos’ they cause might actually be due in large part simply to the inevitable disruption that takes place while they are being constructed (disruption that evaporates once the schemes are complete) holding one’s nerve in the short-term is obviously very important.

But the reliance on favourable political conditions and support hasn’t just been a feature of changes in the UK. In New York the utterly transformative changes to Times Square were proposed to be removed completely by a police commissioner, believing that some undesirable behaviour was related to part of it now being a “dead-end street” - despite rising and already clear majority in support of those changes. There’s a clear lesson there that even after a scheme has gone in, if the minority that don’t believe in it happen to have access to power, then it can all too easily disappear. This may be an issue in London too as Boris’ tenure comes to an end, with a lack of certainty about future cycling delivery under a new mayor, and indeed in other cities in the UK like Bristol, where progress (intermittent or otherwise) has been mayor-led. It is noteworthy too how Leicester - another city making more progress than most with cycling (and pedestrianisation) schemes - has been able to drive change, and face down opposition, with a politically confident mayor, re-elected in 2015.

While some of the grounds for opposition to new cycling schemes are spurious, misguided or mischievous - and the petition against Superhighway 11 is certainly generating many of these - that’s not to say that there aren’t reasonable grounds for concern. Perhaps the most notable argument to emerge prominently in objections to Waltham Forest’s ‘Mini Holland’ schemes, and more recently with opposition to Hackney’s proposals for the Quietway route along Middleton Road, is that ‘filtering’ roads - preventing them being used as through-routes by motor traffic - simply creates more motor traffic on the boundary roads, worsening the environment for residents and users. The claim is even that it is the residents on the prosperous, leafy streets who are benefiting, at the expense of people on the busier roads.

This is a difficult objection to counter, but evidence suggests that, in response to these kinds of schemes, motor traffic levels do not remain static, but fall across an area, even on roads that have not been filtered. Indeed, the amount of ‘chaos’ predicted on the boundary roads fails to materialise, or is simply the everyday congestion that existed before, viewed through a hostile prism that attributes any delay to the new changes. Camden’s Tavistock Place scheme saw taxi drivers predicting chaos on the parallel Euston Road, despite the fact that the latter road carries around 60,000 vehicles a day - the addition of the ‘extra’ motor traffic from Tavistock Place is negligible, particularly against a pattern of overall decline in motor traffic on this main road over the last decade.

Likewise filtering should not happen in isolation, but as part of a wider network-based approach that sees improvements and changes on main roads, as well as on the residential streets that are being filtered. It really shouldn’t be about shunting motor traffic onto different roads, but about creating better environments for walking and cycling, everywhere.

Another objection - and this is one that LBC have attempted to play upon in London with a rather contrived stunt - is that cycling infrastructure creates problems for those with mobility problems, or those who genuinely rely on their car to get around. It is true that kerbs and cycleways can represent an additional barrier for those with pushchairs, or in wheelchairs, or mobility scooters, in trying to get to the kerbside. However this is not a necessary condition of cycling infrastructure - it can and should be designed to be easily traversable, particularly because that makes the cycleways safer to use for people actually travelling along them. It should also be added that the cycling infrastructure has been accompanied by the delivery of new crossings, and simplified crossings with reduced delay, all of them with flush crossing points.

Cycling certainly should not be seen in isolation, but as part of a wider strategy of making roads and streets easily navigable by all potential users. Amusingly it appears that taxi drivers themselves are inadvertently supplying evidence that cycleways are actually beneficial for mobility scooter users, and it seems that people across London are working out for themselves that cycleways are something that can help them get around, even if they are not using a bicycle.

For those who are car-dependent because of mobility problems, it is true that cycling infrastructure - particularly in the form of filtering schemes - may make life more difficult, particularly for short urban trips. Perhaps this is an instance of short-term pain for long-term gain; making towns and cities more cycling- and walking-friendly is about reducing car dependence, and lowering pressure on the road network and on parking spaces. Providing transport choice for those who may wish to use better alternatives than their car for short trips should, in the long term, mean that the road network works better for those who are genuinely car-dependent, or for whom the car is the most sensible option for their particular requirements on a given day.

Another area of concern is that cycling infrastructure comes at the expense of bus passengers. Replacing bus lanes with cycling infrastructure can be seen as an easy option for councils and authorities focused on ‘maintaining traffic flow’, conceived narrowly in terms of the flow of private motor traffic. This is the case with the Roseburn-Leith Walk scheme in Edinburgh, which has also picked up opposition from Living Streets, concerned about the arrival of floating bus stops on busier streets. A bus lane was also sacrificed as part of the Superhighway 5 scheme in London, although it is noteworthy that bus priority was retained where it matters - on the approach to traffic lights, where the queues build up, the queues that bus lanes help to bypass. It may be this is the kind of sensible trade-off that is required in the short term, with bus lanes sacrificed for cycling infrastructure where the effect on bus journey times may be negligible.

Finally, a common claim with new cycling projects in ‘high street’ environments is that shops will be put out of business. Cycling infrastructure proposed along Green Lanes in Enfield (and elsewhere in the borough, as part of the wider Mini Holland project) attracted an organised campaign from local shopkeepers, fearful of the effect on trade from the removal of a very small number of car parking spaces - just 24. And similar concerns have been voiced in opposition to the aforementioned Roseburn-Leith Walk scheme. We’ve covered the (conclusive) evidence that bike lanes are not bad for business at all - quite the opposite - in a previous roundup, so won’t repeat it here.

Needless to say fear of change is understandable, particularly if that change involves prioritising a mode of transport that is much less noticeable than a swathe of cars parked outside your business, and isn’t associated with shopping. Evidence from elsewhere - even similar towns and cities in Britain alone - isn’t going to be enough to bring every single shopkeeper and business on board.   In truth this kind of backlash - and the other forms considered here - will still require persuasion, reasoned argument and engagement, but above all a willingness to see change through.