Culture shift

In the first of a series of guest opinion pieces on cycling, Stephen McNally considers the difference between knowledge and action, rhetoric and actually road-mapping the end of car culture domination.

………………

“My cigarette is the mild cigarette, that’s why Chesterfield is my favourite”
Ronald Regan

I started smoking in 1986. I was 16. Everyone smoked. My Da smoked. All my teachers smoked – in class, constantly. At 16 you could bring a note from your parents giving you permission to smoke in school. Friends smoked, brother smoked, girlfriend smoked. I started work at 18 in a local newspaper, I smoked at my desk. I could smoke on the bus to work. I could smoke on a train. I could smoke in a plane. I could smoke in a hospital. I could smoke in a bar. I could smoke in a restaurant. I could smoke in McDonalds. The Embassy World Snooker Championship was on TV. Snooker players smoked. Darts players smoked. Footballers smoked in dugouts and managers smoked on the touchline. Marlboro hung over the gantries in F1 racing, JPS, Silk Cut and Benson & Hedges plastered the cars and the drivers.

In many ways I was lucky though, at the start of the 90s smoking culture began to be dismantled. It still took me another 10 years to quit though.

GrandParade

In the 25 years we’ve spent raising the bar on access and opportunity to tobacco we have lowered the bar on our access and opportunity to use cars. We now live in a society where it’s almost seen as a human right to own a car. Easy finance and a saturated 2nd hand market mean it’s not just one car – 2, 3 and 4 cars isn’t uncommon in some households. In most schools, student cars now outnumber those of staff in the school car park. Vehicles once used by the military now drop children off to primary schools. Children don’t play outside, instead they’re driven to swimming clubs, football clubs, youth clubs and driven home again – ironically because the roads are now too dangerous for children to walk or cycle. In the same 25 years the simple VW Golf has become twice as heavy, twice as powerful and considerably longer and wider. The new Mini is mini in name only.

The right tool for the right job.

“City fathers have to choose. Cars or bicycles. And in Copenhagen they’ve gone for the bike. The upshot is a city that works. It’s pleasing to look at. It’s astonishingly quiet. It’s safe. And no one wastes half their life looking for a parking space. I’d live there in a heartbeat.”
Jeremy Clarkson

The car is a great thing. Covering long distances in short time they’re an amazing invention. But they were never intended to solve the problem of short distances. They were invented to replace those long journeys where railways didn’t run, where horses still pulled carriages long distances. 100 years ago trams, buses, bikes and walking had solved the problem of transport in inner cities, but somehow a car culture left unchecked has eroded these systems and turned all city and town centres into car parks and traffic jams. In a similar way car culture eroded a rural public transport system. The train network was scrapped 60 years ago and isn’t coming back. We have a patchwork public transport network in rural areas – in rural communities the car is now essential.

The solution for transporting large volumes of people efficiently in inner cities is the same in 2013 as it was in 1913 – trams, buses, bikes and walking. In terms of efficiency, value for money, health benefits and environmental benefits there’s a clear winner – the bike.

World class cycle infrastructure, free of charge.

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”
Albert Einstein

The current demand is for a bridge across the Lagan to the Gasworks in Belfast. In Belfast there are currently 8 bridges across the river Lagan where cycling is possible. All along a relatively short stretch of river. Most have 2 lanes, some have 4 lanes. All have footpaths. They’re all fairly modern and well maintained. Why do we need another bridge solely for cyclists? Why can’t we claim one of the existing bridges, or a lane or two at no cost? And while we’re there, a few of those minor roads currently used as ‘rat-runs’ where a car has no business being. We can create dedicated cycle-only roads in and out of the city linking up with greenways, towpaths at no cost. The call for more ‘cycle infrastructure’ is always met with “we can’t afford it”. But we’ve already paid for it, it’s all in place; we simply need to shift our thinking on how we allocate it. Rather than continually calling for segregation of bikes, we should rapidly integrate bikes into a ready-made infrastructure. Segregation may still be needed between greenways and inner city but within the city centre reduced car usage should make segregation largely redundant.

One of the things you realise when living in a rural area is, there’s really enough room for everyone. The density of the road network coupled with lower number of cars suddenly strikes an almost perfect balance. To do the same in inner cities we need to reduce car access in key locations. The density of roads exists but there are too many cars allowed unrestricted access.

Here’s a quick one. Botanic Avenue, Dublin Road, Linenhall St should be totally car free. Scrap on-street parking in Ormeau Ave, Donegal St, Castle St and Clifton St and use the freed up space for 2-way bike lanes. Pinch a lane in Sunnyside Street and another on the Kings Bridge and instantly you have a high-speed, 10 minute network from one side of the city to the other.

Ride On Belfast
Ride On Belfast jointly organised by The Fréd Festival and NI Greenways

Knowing isn’t enough.

“Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.”
Leonardo da Vinci

Knowing tobacco was a killer for decades wasn’t enough. I was 100% clear of consequences but still willingly bought into the smoking culture. Putting stickers on fag packets didn’t work. TV commercials didn’t work. Poster campaigns didn’t work. Only when access and opportunity to cigarettes began to be restricted did the shift begin. I stopped smoking because I knew it was affecting my health, but crucially it began costing too much, and I couldn’t smoke in all the places I used to.

Knowing that cars are a problem in towns and cities isn’t enough. Painted lines and kerb stones without a cultural shift isn’t enough. Painted lines and kerbs is the equivalent of putting a ‘smoking kills’ on fag packets, it’s not persuading drivers out of their cars. As we did with tobacco we must do with cars, continue to tell people it’s not good to use a car for every journey but we need to start restricting access, parking and raise prices.

When governments crunched the numbers, smoking was costing the NHS more than it was raking in tobacco tax. If we can start boiling it down to ‘value for money’ then the argument and the culture shift will start.

Making cultural shifts.

So what measures do you introduce to start making the shift?

  • Transport should be de-centralised and devolved to local authorities, it’s not a one size fits all solution.
  • Local authorities must produce a 5 year plan to reduce car usage in agreed areas and be forced to implement it.
  • Proper, clean, extensive, reliable trams in Belfast, subsidised by expensive in-town parking and metered residential parking.
  • Smart working from home. Victorian work practices that worked for industrial factories aren’t applicable in a modern connected world. Over 30% of jobs in NI are in the public sector with the vast majority based in greater Belfast accounting for a lot of traffic each day. All the technology is in place to reduce the need to be in the office every day, can we start using it?
  • No on-street parking in the “centres” of cities towns and villages.
  • Cheap multi-storey car parks just outside an agreed zone linking to, trams, bus and cycle network – “park and ride”.
  • Limited, very expensive multi-storey car parking slightly further in, want to take your car into the city centre? You’ll have to pay.
  • Pay for parking in residential areas (residents with cars get a pass) – no more parking outside a strangers house all day without paying (visit the Holylands, Stranmills, Ormeau etc for examples).
  • Visible bike culture – on street bike parking, stands outside shops, bars, cafés, pubs etc.
  • Higher fuel costs in cities, lower fuel costs in rural areas.
  • Trains/trams/buses that can take lots of bikes, at any time of day. Proper, covered, secure free bike parks at all stations
  • Congestion tax.
  • Park and ride (bus) at every motorway exit.
  • More affordable, accessible car hire schemes – I don’t need a car every day of the week.
  • Bike hire at key locations – University, Titanic, City Hall, Waterfront, hospitals etc.
  • 20mph within all towns and cities.
  • 50mph speed limit on all minor roads.
  • 80mph on motorways – this is where the car works, free it up and compensate for lowered speed limits elsewhere.

I realise it all sounds very radical, but these are measures employed in other parts of the world.

How will we know the shift has happened?

We’ll know the shift has happened when we can say some of the following.

  • I remember being able to park on the street close by the City Hall for £1 an hour
  • I remember being able to park outside a complete stranger’s house all day – free
  • I remember being able to drive straight through the city centre, anytime day or night – free
  • I remember being able to take the car to school and park in the staff car park
  • I remember being able to drive at 30mph through residential streets and past primary schools
  • I remember being able to drive any size of car, anywhere, at any time without any restrictions
  • I remember being able to own as many cars as I wanted
  • I remember when you rarely saw a bike in the city centre
  • I remember when Government announced rising car sales as a good thing
  • I remember we used to own a car

………………

Stephen McNally @10on12 helps to run The Upbeat Agency, a not-for-profit company responsible for Lap The Lough and The Fréd Festival.

The Upbeat Agency @getupbeat
http://www.getupbeat.org/

Lap The Lough @lapthelough
http://www.lapthelough.org/

The Fréd Festival @thefredfestival
http://www.thefred.cc/

4 thoughts on “Culture shift

  1. A well written piece – great to have another articulate cycle campaigner on the scene.
    However, I’m not sure I agree with your chosen method of trying to achieve mass cycling.
    E.g. “Local authorities must produce a 5 year plan to reduce car usage in agreed areas and be forced to implement it” seems a bit authoritarian, even if we had the political support to demand it.
    I think the focus should be first and foremost on creating towns and cities that are economically & environmentally sustainable, socially just, and are healthy & attractive places to live, work & visit. There is a much greater chance in gaining political & popular support for this, although even this will be far from easy. Cycling would be a key element in such a vision, but its more of a means to an end rather that the end itself. I agree with you in the need to make parking more difficult & more expensive, but we must NOT encourage more people to shop out of town, or encourage people to leave the town altogether to live in the open countryside. The initial focus should be on all-day parking by commuters, and public sector organisations should take the lead. All free and subsidised car-parking should be phased out asap.
    There are good economic, environmental & social reasons in curtailing car use, but the general public, and politicians, will only really listen when we have, for example, the full support of the Health sector behind it, and well publicised articles that detail the economic benefits, both to retailers and wider society. Such articles, for the N. Ireland context, have still to be written. We have to produce a vision for the future that people find desirable and practical, and not one to be imposed on them for their own good.

  2. Good article. I very much agree with the view that cars are most appropriate for long distance journeys, but often inappropriate for short ones. I also agree with many of your proposals, including regular park and rides at motorway junctions.

    I would have to disagree with the idea that cars were invented only to replace journeys that trains didn’t cover. The inventor of the car was trying to find a way to move a carriage without horses, that’s it. I don’t think he had any particular plan on how it might impact trains, any more than the inventor of any gadget would not insist that it must not replace the status quo. Cars replaced trains in the post war period for two reasons:
    1. Trains are labour intensive, and rising wages in the 50s and 60s made them increasingly expensive and untenable to run. Many became loss-making.
    2. The public were switching to cars in their tens of thousands out of personal choice. Since many of the problems with cars in cities were not evident then, it is perhaps unfair to expect our forebears to have taken draconian action to halt something that most radio all people would not have even seen as a problem.

    The proposal to have a collar round the city centre with cheap multi storeys is very reminiscent of a similar proposal put forward by opponents if the Belfast Urban Motorway in the 1960s. It’s a good idea. The only snag is that there is no guarantee that city centres will remain statically in place while you build such a ring around them. It is quite possible that if people find it more convenient to work and do business elsewhere, then they will. This is especially true in the online future, where there is no guarantee that even the concept of a “city centre” will still exist in 30 years, perhaps rendering the whole question redundant. Anyone who shops online for things that can be purchased in city centre shops is speeding the day that this happens.

  3. @nicyclinginitiative
    Thanks for the comment.
    Whether we like it or not our traditional concept of the “City Centre” as a place where business happens is in terminal decline. They’ve become more a “recreational experience” in recent years as we try and re-imagine what their purpose is. Rent, rates, recession, internet & out of town shopping centres have all played a significant role.
    The shopping mall works very much like a town/city centre did 40-50 years ago, that’s their appeal – we should be asking why they work and learn.

    @WesleyJohnston, thanks for commenting – I agree with you why trains were scrapped. People chose the car over the train but the condition of the infrastructure probably hastened this. Short sighted to completely scrap a rail network in such a vast area? I currently live 10 miles from the nearest bus station and 12 miles from the nearest train station. 60 years ago the nearest train station was ¼ mile away. Communities did develop along the rail network and are now left with the car as the only alternative.

    Again – the internet is only one part of the “city centre” problem. “City Centre” has always been a fluid concept as rent & rates, new developments, new communities etc displace the centre. We now have “centres” – I suppose the challenge is to connect them in more coherent way.

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