Help – my council has just won megabucks for cycling!

What do you do as a campaigner when your local authority suddenly wins a bid worth millions of pounds to invest in walking and cycling?

“Watch them spend it, obviously,” you might be thinking – but of course it’s never that simple. What if there’s a massive public ‘bikelash’? What if the political will to implement the scheme goes a bit wobbly or disappears? What if the plans are seriously flawed, or get watered down to ‘some new trees and nice paving’ during the design and consultation process?

I live in the London Borough of Enfield, which won ‘Mini Holland’ funding for walking and cycling in 2014 during Boris Johnson’s time as mayor. Now London boroughs are bidding for Sadiq Khan’s version, Liveable Neighbourhoods. The chances are that other local authorities who win bids will have similar experiences to ours. So, for what it’s worth, here are some tips from the battlefield in Enfield…

Embrace the bikelash!

In 2014/15, as an LCC borough campaign group of about five people, we watched with horror as a public outcry rose up against Enfield’s Mini Holland. We already knew that our outer London borough was heavily car-dependent and cycling made up less than 1% of all journeys. But to hear the opposition’s viewpoint, you’d think the council was imposing death camps on the borough rather than bike lanes. “Give the money back to the Mayor!” screamed the neon yellow posters. “Nobody wants the bike lanes!” Why, they ranted, was £42 million being squandered on this tiny minority of men in Lycra who jump red lights and don’t even pay road tax?

Enfield Mini Holland posters.jpg

The publicity they generated was in fact a godsend for us. Many residents had no idea about the Mini Holland until they saw the yellow posters (you could hardly miss them). While some agreed with their message, there was also disbelief that anyone would not want investment in safer cycling and nicer high streets. A local student set up a Facebook page (borrowing the idea from Waltham Forest) called We Support Enfield’s Mini Holland, and people started to join. I’m convinced that we would never have campaigned with the energy that we did without that provoking opposition at the start.

Engage with ‘non-cyclists’

Much of the support for Enfield’s scheme has come from people who don’t cycle and never intend to. People who had campaigned for 20mph or zebra crossings, or ran play streets or street parties, or were Living Streets or Green Party members, were natural allies. So were many parents, who worried about air pollution and danger to kids walking to school.

We gave ourselves the inclusive name Better Streets for Enfield because we were conscious that this was far bigger than a cycling issue. We were also careful not to feed any divisions, for instance to talk about ‘people on bikes’ rather than ‘cyclists’. And we had to be realistic that many of our members own cars and drive them (as I do, though only at gunpoint…) so our moderators have to stamp on any ‘drivers are evil’ comments. Our message is that people are people, whatever mode of transport they use – so let’s make the healthier travel modes easier for everyone. (Of course, people who don’t cycle have an irritating way of becoming people who do, once they see the safe new bike lanes, but we’ll gloss over that.)

Change the conversation

In public forums, we learnt very quickly that the words ‘cyclist’ or even ‘cycle lane’ is like a red rag to a bull. So we stopped using them. We focus on something everyone seems to agree with: there is too much traffic. Most people want cleaner air, safer roads, nicer high streets (i.e. low traffic or pedestrianised) and less rat running on their own street. That can’t be achieved with the volume of traffic we have right now. It’s hard to argue with the facts of childhood obesity (Enfield has one of the worst rates nationally), toxic air, congestion and too much traffic at school run hours. If these are the problems, how do we bring about the change we need? If you want to win over older people in, say, a ward forum, start talking about how much freedom children used to have in the 1950s. Get them reminiscing about the mischief they got up to unsupervised on the street and how far they roamed on their bikes. Then remind them that kids’ freedom has all but vanished nowadays, thanks in large part to traffic. In my experience, they start nodding vigorously.

Sunny Scooting Enfield Phil Rogers.jpg

Be nice to the council – they’re human

We learnt not to be shouty, idealistic campaigners who shred infrastructure designs at first glance for not being 100% Dutch. We publicly said warm things about the councillors who were bravely implementing this scheme in the face of stiff opposition. This stood in stark contrast to the personal insults being slung at councillors by some of the ‘antis’. Coached tirelessly by Simon Munk (who became infrastructure campaigner for London Cycling Campaign as Enfield’s first designs were being drawn up), we also learnt to balance any criticism for the designs with praise, and to compromise where necessary. That approach meant the council were more willing to trust us, to discuss plans with us and to hear our point of view. We also realised that some of the measures being used – such as light segregation, not fully segregated bike lanes – were not the cop-out they first appeared. Light segregation is cheaper and goes much further, creating a whole network for the price of a single high-quality route.

We don’t agree with the council on everything – we’ve got a list of issues we’d like to see fixed, and our plea for low-traffic neighbourhoods has not been answered (yet). But the point is that we have a seat at the table and we’re being listened to as critical friends.

I hope that arms you with some ideas. We're also pleased to see similar groups to ours springing up around London - Better Streets for Tower Hamlets, Tooting Healthy Streets, Healthy Streets for Harrow. If you want some help setting one up in your own area, I can send you a presentation from a workshop I led recently at a London Cycling Campaign conference - just drop me a line.

May your council win millions in funding for healthier streets in your neighbourhood. It’s a good problem to have.

Clare Rogers

Better Streets for Enfield and Enfield Cycling Campaign