When I lived in London 10 years ago, biking to work was almost unheard of. I remember a colleague of mine, the only cyclist I knew, rolling up her pantleg, lifting her shirt, to show me all her scars.
Since then, though, cycling has nearly doubled, and is expected to surpass driving in just three years.
London has—visibly, significantly—become friendlier for cyclists. The bike-hire scheme, the bright blue “cycle superhighways,” you even see tourists and kids out cycling now. I started biking on my work-trips to London about six years ago, and it seems like every time I visit, there’s more quietways, better signs, (slightly) nicer drivers, fewer close calls.
I am perplexed by how this happened. All the arguments for cycling to work—cheaper, less pollution, more exercise—applied as much a decade ago as they do now. So why have they suddenly found purchase?
As far as I can tell, the decisive factor for the rise in bikes, and bike infrastructure, in London has been successful campaigning by grassroots NGOs. Starting in the early 2000s, cycling campaigners changed tactics, updated their messaging and started getting results. They’ve become so powerful that drivers even complain about the “cycle lobby” with the same sneer as Americans talk about the NRA.
It’s super cool! I’ve spent much of the decade since I left London campaigning for human rights, and I’m in awe of the way “Ride your bike!” has run circles around “Legalize drugs!” “End tax dodging!” and “Accept refugees!” as a message that’s supported by a wide swath of the public. I am also, rather relevantly, a cyclist, and I want other cities to put in bike lanes so I can bike on them and not die!
So—*cracks knuckles*—how did London cycling campaigners do it? What are the lessons that the broader field of social campaigning can take from this particular one?
1. Get Your Shit Together
The most striking thing about cycle campaigning in the UK is the 60 or so years they wasted broadcasting the wrong messages and arguing for the wrong policies.
Cycling peaked in the UK in 1949, at 37% of all miles traveled. As the road-building and car-buying frenzy of the 1950s took off, old-school cycling campaigners, led by an NGO called the Cyclists Touring Club, landed on the idea that separated, dedicated bike lanes were a bad thing.
Here’s a cartoon from the 1930s that sums up the opinion among many cyclists at the time.
The idea here is that building special roads for bikes represents a surrender. Cyclists had been using the roads for decades, since way before mass car ownership. Being separated from cars, shunted off onto their own little lanes, was a form of marginalization, a way for drivers to colonize space that rightfully belonged to cyclists. We have the right to be in the road, the CTC argued, and that’s where we’re going to stay.
This is, obviously, utter fucking madness. While Danish and Dutch cycling campaigners were pressing their governments to build roads that kept them away from speeding vehicles, UK cyclists were fighting to be right to be in their path.
For the rest of the 20th century it went on like this, the CTC promoting the baffling, murderous idea of “vehicular cycling“—bikes should act like cars. If you’re nervous about traffic behind you, or unsure about how to cross an intersection, you should “take the lane”: Bike in the middle of the road, block all the cars behind you, go through the infrastructure just like a car would. Rather than advocating for roads that would make cycling safe for children, the elderly or the disabled, the CTC actively encouraged infrastructure that kept cycling a niche pursuit, an option only for the brave, the stupid, the Spandexed (in Britain they call them MAMILs—Middle-Aged Men in Lycra).
The CTC gave training to cyclists, encouraged them to wear helmets and bright orange vests and hoped that drivers would finally, magically, pass them with more distance. They even argued that the bike lanes in Denmark and the Netherlands, which had steadily reduced accidents, deaths and injuries, were generating “incompetent” cyclists. Meanwhile, the proportion of Brits biking to work plummeted to just 2.8 percent. These days, despite the fact that the majority of children in the UK live less than 3 miles from school, less than 2 percent of them get there by bike.
The broader lesson here, other than “never trust anyone wearing Spandex,” is, I think, something about in-groups and out-groups. You can’t really blame the CTC for employing such a self-annihilating strategy. It’s a membership organization. Once all the roads got built, the only people left biking on them were hardcore cyclists—the dudes you see bent over their handlebars, helmets on, earbuds in, wrapped in bright yellow vests, running red lights through central London. Those guys were the CTC’s constituents—not the 50 percent of the population who consistently tell researchers they would bike if the infrastructure was better.
Their own mandate ensured that they were working for current cyclists, not potential ones. The CTC made various attempts over the years to change its strategy, but its own members revolted, reiterating their commitment to biking on the roads, not on bike lanes. It was only in the 2000s—when the CTC finally got competition by rival NGOs, when its bullshit started getting called out on bike blogs—that it updated its strategy.
This is relevant for all kinds of social issues beyond cycling. As much as we (rightly) lionize grassroots organizations, they’re all beholden to their own internal constituencies, vulnerable to advocating for the wrong ideas. For decades, the CTC “owned” the issue of cycling promotion just like Amnesty International “owns” abolishing the death penalty and Greenpeace “owns” not hunting whales. Most social issues are like this, they have one NGO that leads the work on gathering information and communicating it to back to the public. Some of these NGOs are great and some of them suck. And it can take decades to detach the sucky ones from an issue and replace them with one that will actually get something done.
There’s also a lesson here about appropriation. Transport for London, the agency in charge of (not) building bike lanes, must have loved the CTC. It could invite the CTC round, show them some deathtrappy infrastructure, get their sign-off and start building. The government got to save money on building bike lanes and got the added bonus of saying “Hey, we consulted cyclists before we built this” if anyone complained.
You see this everywhere in human rights: The NGOs that are the most comfortable with the status quo, the ones that are already cuddle-distance from politicians, are the ones that get invited to the consultation, that get a speaking slot at the conference, that get repeated and retweeted by people in power. For a shark, the best thing about having a favorite remora is that it keeps the other remoras off of you.
2. Kick It Old School
Cycling started to get successful in the runup to the 2012 London mayoral elections. The new cycling NGOs, the ones challenging the CTC’s monopoly on bipedaling, launched a campaign called “Love London, Go Dutch” and started lobbying candidates to sign it. Since then, they’ve persevered, timing advocacy to coincide with major political events and pressuring politicians to include cycling in their manifestos.
Considering how recent this all is, you would think it would be a parable about the importance of new media, how cyclists twitterred and Facebooked and Snapchatted their way into a bike boom. But, the more you look into it, the more it starts to look like an example of the opposite.
The London Cycling Campaign, the main NGO advocating for better bike lanes, has 12,000 members, 30,000 supporters and handful of franchises—the Camden Cycling Campaign, the Hackney Cycling Campaign, and so on—focused on each of London’s boroughs. This entire network has been mobilized to relay a clear, simple, specific message to London’s politicians at every level: Build us more bike lanes.
Most of the ways they do this are decidedly old-school. They hold protest rides. They show up at town-hall meetings. They give their members the contact details of their ward councilor. One of the smartest things they’ve done is the annual “Sky Ride,” one Sunday a summer when London closes all its highways so families can bike on them. This not only generates positive messaging (you can only bitch at Transport for London so many times), it also produces photos of adorable children on bikes that the LCC can show to politicians and ask “Why can’t kids do this every single day?”
Another analog strategy they’ve used is converting cycling deaths from statistic to tragedy. As anyone with eyes and a brain will tell you, biking in London is dangerous. What it’s not, though, is uniformly dangerous. The vast majority of cycling deaths happen at intersections—at, in fact, the same fucking intersections, over and over again.
In 2013, after six cyclists were killed in two weeks, most of them by delivery trucks, the LCC started pointing out to the media, the public and politicians that these deaths were not inevitable. They gave names and backstories to the people that were killed and organized a mass ride to London’s 10 deadliest intersections. Stop Killing Cyclists, another NGO, held a mass ‘Die-In‘ outside Transport for London. All this direct action demonstrated the argument that biking is not dangerous. What’s dangerous is how London’s governing bodies arrange public space so cyclists have to share it with trucks and taxis and buses. Accidents are the result of negligence by engineers and planners, not carelessness by cyclists.
Earlier this year I interviewed a consultant who has advised the Gates Foundation on its use of technology to solve global poverty. The National Rifle Association, he pointed out, is one of the most effective lobbying organizations in the world. And sure, it has a website, it’s on Twitter. But mostly, it wins at everything not because it uses new media but because it has perfected the old: Forming a constituency, articulating a clear agenda and threatening politicians with the loss of a voting bloc if they don’t fall in line. Cycling campaigners finally figured out that if you want politicians to listen, you have to hit them in the only place it hurts.
3. Take the Right Lessons from the Right Countries
This is Exhibition Road, in West London. On the left is what it used to look like. On the right is what it looks like now.
The idea here is “shared space”: Rather than a forest of signs telling drivers, bikers and walkers how to behave, the street allows everyone to interact with each other, to negotiate between themselves. We’re all adults here, after all, and it’s a kind of freedom to be in a space that’s open to improvisation, rather than striped into types and speeds and modes.
This concept, its architects love to point out, is actually borrowed from the Dutch, who famously pulled out stop signs at intersections and un-painted bike lanes in favor of streets that were uniform, interactive, human.
It’s a super appealing idea! We’ve all been to streets where people are sitting at cafes, or cruising past on their bikes, or slowly cruising past in their convertible. They’re delightful.
The only problem is what Exhibition Road is actually fucking like.
A friend of mine works nearby, so I bike down this street nearly every time I’m in London. Pulling out the stop signs and putting in those painted roundabouts has given cab drivers license to careen though them with barely a swerve. Pedestrians and bikers, far from “sharing the space” with the cars whizzing past, are huddled onto the sidewalk out of their way, the same way we are on every other goddamn street. Who wants to sit at a café where you breathe in diesel, where you shout over engine noise, where you’re boxed in by parked cars?
This is what Mark Treasure calls “placefaking.” Everyone agrees, in principle, that neighborhoods need destinations: Plazas and streets made for visiting, rather than driving through. Dutch cities have a lot of these. They’re clean, peaceful, cute, slow. You find yourself using words like “stroll” and “wander.”
And, yes, those Dutch streets have pretty pavements and very few road signs. But that’s not what makes them places. What makes them places is that they have barely any cars on them. The Dutch do this deliberately. They put blockades at one end of a street to keep cars from using it as a through route. Or they create loop-de-loops of one-way streets so they don’t actually lead anywhere. Those streets are cute and quiet because the only people who drive on them are people who live there or are delivering something. Pretty paving is fine, sure, it can stay. But it’s the least important thing about what makes a place a place.
This is the constant danger of any type of campaigning: The actors you’re aiming it at will take components of the shit you’re asking for and ignore the purpose behind it. They’ll try to give you what you want without taking anything away from anyone else. The way countries do this is by passing laws that campaigners ask for, then refusing to enforce them. The way companies do this is by finding easy, profitable fixes to their sustainability problems. They switch to fluorescent light bulbs, or they sell their waste to recycling companies. All this shit is frosting, ways for governments and businesses to look like they’re improving while continuing to violate human rights or run a polluting factory. Well, we tell ourselves, it’s better than nothing.
This is what I always found to be the hardest part about campaigning: Not the messaging, but the monotony. Exhibition Road used to be a clogged esophagus for cars. It remains one, but improving it any further just got exponentially harder. Taking two steps forward and one back is, as I have argued in basically everything I’ve ever written, the way the world works. And it is exhausting.
4. Focus on Structural Solutions
One of the most ubiquitous insights of the last 10 years is that the countries that have the highest percentage of organ donors are not the ones that cajole their citizens through public awareness campaigns. It’s the countries where donating your organs is the default on the form. It’s that simple. By making it the norm, that little tick box teaches people that donating their organs is the baseline, expected, that they should have a reason not to.
The idea that our environment affects our behavior, often in invisible ways, has wormed its way into the zeitgeist, from tax forms to TED Talks, and there’s nothing governments like these days more than bragging about how they’re “nudging” their citizens toward pro-social behavior.
The implications of this—both the idea and its current faddishness—for campaigners in general and cycling in particular are obvious: Streets teach you how to drive on them. The width of the lanes, the sharpness of the corners, the smoothness of the tarmac, they’re all telling you the “right” speed to drive at, whether you’re consciously hearing them or not.
A few years ago, some cycling NGOs in the UK launched a campaign called “20 is plenty.” They wanted cities across the UK, as well as large parts of London, to make the speed limit 20 miles per hour. Slowing traffic, went the logic, would encourage people to bike, would quiet streets to make them more walkable for pedestrians, more play-innable for children.
This, it turns out, was a huge waste of everyone’s time. Islington, one of the London boroughs that imposed the lower speed limits, found that it reduced the speed of traffic by … 1 mph. Portsmouth, an entire city, did the same thing and saw average speeds fall from 19.8mph to 18.5mph and the number of deaths and injuries actually increase.
Since that campaign, cycling campaigners have wised up. These days it’s all about structural solutions—updating intersections with separate traffic lights for bikes, or retrofitting trucks so drivers can see the cyclist at their flank before they turn on top of her. As a government report on the Portsmouth experiment notes, “20mph limits are most appropriate for roads where average speeds are already low.” In other words, update the roads, not the rules.
Not that that’s easy. When I used to consult corporations on how to protect human rights, the first thing they always suggested was a handbook: A little guide with tips for their managers on spotting child labor or gender discrimination or human trafficking. We would spend a month researching it, a month writing it—and about 10 minutes implementing it. Making up new rules and delivering new messages is easy. That’s exactly why it’s the first resort of under-budgeted government departments and marginalized corporate sustainability departments.
If you look at the two social issues where companies have genuinely improved in the last 30 years—workplace accidents and corruption—it’s because they started monitoring their own performance, gave bonuses to managers who improved and fired managers who didn’t. Alcoa famously started examining all of its workplace accidents, poring over them like plane crashes, to make sure they never happened again. Siemens installed an ombudsman whose entire job was to root out corruption in his own company. That’s what institutions do when they actually want to solve a problem. Handbooks and rules and awareness-raising are what they do when they want to seem like they are.
5. It’s the Money, Stupid
Here’s a graph of the percentage of trips made by bike in the UK. Joe Dunckley of At War With the Motorist has handily added boxes for each time a politician has declared that a “cycling revolution” was afoot.
This is both extremely cynical and extremely accurate. Every 7-10 years for the previous 50, the UK government has released a “Let’s Get Britain Cycling!”-type strategy document. The fonts have changed over the years, but the content is remarkably consistent. The survey of existing biking levels. The consultation with cyclists. The statement of the urgent need for better infrastructure. The same sore-thumb-obvious observations that cycling is good for health, environment, pocketbook. A dash of concern for its maleness and whiteness, a sprinkling of the word “inclusive.” Then a dozen or so recommendations for making it mass. Build infrastructure, train kids, sensitize drivers.
The pdfs recede into the tangled ivy of the Department for Transport website. The recommendations are ignored, their contradiction with binding engineering policies unresolved. And the targets—get 10% of Brits biking to work, double the number of kids biking to school—get repeated, verbatim, in the next strategy, the next decade.
Let’s not pretend to be surprised by any of this. Bold announcements and flaccid follow-through are inherent to the structure of democratic politics. Our representatives get acclaim for announcing things and criticism for actually doing them. It is cheap and easy to hold consultations, produce models and projections and release a target and a “roadmap.”
Actually doing stuff is where it gets hard, expensive and vote-subtracting. Getting people cycling requires coordinating overlapping jurisdictions, tendering out contracts, meeting a timetable, allocating a budget. This is the stuff of trade-offs and sacrifices, the exact kind of things for which we need politicians—and for which we never reward them.
It is tempting to say that this time is different. Boris Johnson, before he became the most hated man in Britain, was the mayor of London for eight years. He was also a cyclist, and the first London politician to (sort of) follow through on the government’s commitment to promote biking. As one of his last acts in office, he installed a big, fat, separated bike lane right along the Thames, narrowing the road and pissing off thousands of drivers. Nearly every single mayoral candidate in his wake signed on to keep expanding bike lanes.
Which is great! But then, a week after the election, after the political commitments and pastel statements, the government released its nationwide Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy … and steady cuts to the cycling infrastructure budget. By 2020, cycling will be funded by the UK government at roughly the same level as hoverboarding.
The lesson that emerges from all this is an essential corollary to the earlier rule, the one about forming a voting bloc and mobilizing it: The only thing that matters is the money.
All of those earlier strategy documents failed to allocate any significant budget to cycling infrastructure. The 1996 strategy envisioned the creation of a “National Cycling Network” across the country, but didn’t fund anyone to pave it. Local councils got some volunteers to clear branches off rural trails and put up a few signs, that was it. In 2001, the government announced a Cycling Project Fund that would encourage cities to install cycle lanes. It was £2 million. Nationwide. That’s about what London spends on the Tube every two hours.
This is a tricky issue for the left. Progressives are constantly being accused of trying to increase government spending, of creeping toward communism. As a result, left-wing social movements are often reluctant to admit that social change does, in fact, cost money. Instead of arguing that our issues require—and are worth—investing in, we act like they’re freebies. Organic farms are cheaper than industrial ones! Renewable energy pays for itself! Higher wages will improve productivity! And we accept, infuriatingly, plans like the last dozen or so in the UK, ones that make all the right commitments but aren’t willing to pay for them.
At my dayjob, I’ve spent the last three years helping developing countries write National Action Plans. The idea is to get a government to commit to taking action, to make binding targets, to finally coordinate all its ministries and agencies toward a shared goal. Women’s rights, child labour, HIV/AIDS, climate change—pick your issue and at least a dozen developing countries have one of these plans to address it.
But in all the processes I participated in, no one ever seemed to check what had happened to all the previous plans, why the last set of targets weren’t reached. For me, brought in as a consultant, my job was the make sure the plans made the right commitments, not whether they were ever carried out. I could go home and tell my donors that, because of me, the government of Country X adopted a plan on Issue Y and promised to reduce Problem Z by 50 percent before 2025. Then, my job was over. No one wanted to pay for someone local to show up every day after that, to make sure these commitments ever become anything more than a wish list.
In the last few years, London cycling campaigners have gotten smarter, and angrier, about this. There was a huge outcry when the stingy Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy was announced, and campaigners felt comfortable, finally, pointing out that the bike lanes on London’s bridges carry more people every day than all the car lanes combined, and it’s about time they got paid like they did.
For decades we’ve been doing it backwards, trying to get the targets first and hoping the funding will follow. Campaigners have finally realized, fuck the targets. Get the cheddar first and then start debating how to spend it.
We like to think of social change as a rolling snowball, that it builds speed and momentum as it goes. And maybe, at some point, it is. But for the decades before that, it’s a child learning to walk. Teetering, spinning, going backwards, falling down.
It’s not clear that this “cycling revolution” in London is going to last. Social change of any kind is fragile. Britain has, understandably, more pressing issues to focus on at the moment. Maybe in 10 years biking will be gone and the new lanes Boris built will be filled with self-driving Razor Scooters or something. Or, maybe London will finally be as safe and fun as Amsterdam to bike in. But at least, finally, campaigners have figured out the right thing to ask for and the right way to ask it. Campaigners for other issues should make sure they’re doing the same thing.