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Is the moral case for cycling provision a missing element in planning toolkits?

Author Peter Cox sees a ‘political’ dimension to practices needed to create people-friendly streets. Here he discusses his ideas with cycling design engineer Brian Deegan. Reporting by Juliana O’Rourke

Juliana O'Rourke
05 October 2021


Infrastructure is political, and it's also about people, says Peter Cox, author and professor of sociology at the University of Chester. “Infrastructure (or lack thereof) should not be subject only to appropriate design and implementation,” he says. “Rather, it also needs to be viewed as a product of political contestation. Every intervention made in people’s lives is about power, and implicitly telling people that you like – or don't like – what they're doing.”

In the latter case, course people will inevitably react, he says. “What you’ve got to do is take them on a journey. To understand the issues they face, and how these might be dealt with in different ways. And to consider the issues they don’t yet face up to, and how these could be reframed so that they become issues for their children and all those around them, as well as for themselves.”

Spatial justice

The well-known cycling design engineer Brian Deegan is a big fan of Cox’s work and said he has learned a lot from The Politics of Cycling Infrastructure, which Cox co-edited with Till Coglin. “I want to change quite a few things about the way I'm behaving, and pass it on to others,” says Deegan. “So thanks for putting it together.” One of the things that most struck him, he adds, was the notion of spatial justice and “observing from the margins”.

The one criticism I would make of UK authorities is that current thinking lacks ambition. But they are hamstrung by the financial implications of having to address a government that talks the talk but will not commit realistic funding to match the ambition

“I had all these mental images of cyclists watching from the side of the road, thinking ‘when will it all be ours?’ Cyclists are well aware of power dynamics, and we do feel physically marginalised,” he says.  “We’re kicked over to the side of the road, in the most dangerous part where all the rubbish collects. Pushed to the edge. What does that say about what other people think about you? This idea of spatial justice really comes through in the book.”

This relates well to the controversy around Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs), he adds. Commonly asked questions include: with most people still driving, why shouldn't they get the space? Is it politically moral to provide space for cyclists when there's currently so few of them? “Isn't justice for the many? These are the questions we need to answer,” says Deegan.

Cox comments: “For the past 40 years, the right to road space has been argued on a vague moral basis. But what we’re faced with today is different. We are now facing a climate emergency, and business as normal cannot continue. So the moral case is transformed. It’s no longer about privileging one group of users over another.

“Instead, we need to ask whether we are going to further enable the destruction of the lives, the options, the possibilities of our children and our grandchildren; because that's what it's coming down to.” 

Climate change looms large in the debate, although it isn’t dealt with in The Politics of Cycling Infrastructure. “But these are the kind of issues that shaped that debate and, I think, have transformed fundamentally the issues of social and spatial justice.”

Nevertheless, there are reasons besides climate change for demanding a re-structuring of urban transport regimes: liveable cities, fair space allocation and improved health are also among the specific goals now being considered, notes Cox.

Deegan agrees, suggesting that despite the wealth of evidence available, it’s still not easy to make a social or spatial justice argument for improved cycling provision as there are “mental barriers in planning for cycling”. 

Several chapters in the book indicate that the authors came across “public apathy towards alternative transport forms” operating in “combination with transport planners’ lack of perception of active modes as legitimate”.

One chapter reports on a large-scale study of transport professionals in Austria, to identify how the construction and operation of such mental barriers prevents many transport professionals from comprehending or acting upon the scale of change required. To understand the politics of infrastructure, they argue, we need to go beyond the examination of physical and material constructions.

Imaginative frameworks

“You can only really ask for what you know,” explains Deegan. “This is what we find with new LTNs; some people just can't imagine what it'd be like, so they fight to keep what they've got. But then, six months later, once they’ve experienced the change, there is no way they’d want to change it back.”

Cox concurs: “We can't imagine what we don’t know, what’s not been in our imaginative framework.” Through surveys, the book’s authors have exposed the factors shaping and limiting the social imaginations that are brought to bear on infrastructure provisioning. Data showed a clear picture: stakeholders are overwhelmingly older men, and the most promising approaches in overcoming decision makers’ mental barriers is social pressure, and the need for reflection by decision makers on their self-experience.

Ultimately, it is decision makers that are most likely to initiate system change, argues Cox. “Barriers to cycling use that arise from the built environment originate from human hands and can therefore be changed by human hands.” But infrastructure includes both physical and social elements. “The valuable role of training in the politics of social infrastructures remains largely unexplored.” 

Making space for experiencing change is key, says Cox. Large scale and regular temporary closures, like those that happen in Ciclovia events (the Spanish term for when motor vehicles make way for human beings), give everybody an opportunity to see what the city is like without traffic, and to experience what good feels like. 

Cox’s work shows that the expectation of the change required is much greater in advocates than in planners. “I think that's a really interesting point,” says Deegan. “Cycling advocates understand the mass changes needed, but when you speak to technical people in Austria or the Netherlands or Denmark it’s the same as in the UK - OK, let’s readjust that kerb. And give us a year or so to do it.” 

Community engagement

Tactical urbanism, however messy, can also help here – although the public reaction to a few poorly conceived and unattractive schemes delivered by the Active Travel Fund has led the DfT to act. While robust community engagement is now required, the DfT is now also refusing funding to councils that rip out active travel schemes before they have been properly tested and allowed to bed in. 

With new LTNs; some people just can't imagine what it’d be like, so they fight to keep what they’ve got. But then, six months later, once they’ve experienced the change, there is no way they’d want to change it back

Brian Deegan

“The Active Travel Fund initiative was brilliant,” says Deegan. “It gave people the power to make changes. Lots of local authorities did respond and, for me, even those authorities that have been criticised for what they delivered are still in the good camp, as too many other authorities chose not to do anything at all.”

“I agree with that,” adds Cox, “with a couple of modifications. Some local authorities didn't do anything that was meaningful in order to discredit those who want to change.” This prompts Deegan to reference the notion of “insurgent infrastructure” explained in the book. “There are many good examples throughout the book where people just got fed up being in systems where you have to wait for everybody else to decide. We do know a lot about good infrastructure. It’s not rocket science. But what is missing for me is whether people think mode shift is real. As the book says: ‘without modal shift, removing motorists from the city removes people from that city.’ ”

One issue that intrigues both Deegan and Cox is how the process of opening up minds actually happens. “It’s back to experience,” says Cox. “We have vehicular domination of the streets 365 days a year. But now we need a 7% reduction in road traffic per annum. So once a month, we should say, let's make a 7% reduction by constraining vehicles. Then we can ask, is your city a better place to wander around on that one day a month, or not?”

Many advocates would argue that securing spatial justice, especially when combined with a climate emergency, needs constant effort. Marco te Brömmelstroet, who co-authored a chapter in the book, Hard work in paradise The contested making of Amsterdam as a cycling city, says: “Amsterdam is not a tranquil paradise and its conditions can never be taken for granted…. the cycling city takes hard work to establish and maintain. 

“This hard work comes in many shapes and forms, such as activism, policy making, alertness, endurance, expertise, diplomacy, playfulness. In addition, it takes cooperation and competition between many actors. No matter how much has been achieved in the past, continued effort is needed to maintain and improve the cycling city, to avert current threats and to face new challenges...”

Plus, adds Cox, the non-physical infrastructures formed by people and their social networks that support urban mobility are as important as the physical infrastructures, especially in situations where direct state investment in these infrastructures is limited.

Political infrastructures

So, really, the question becomes: do we have to change the political system to get good cycling infrastructure? “There are political infrastructures in place that support the delivery of concrete infrastructure. There are advantages and disadvantages to different systems,” says Cox. “Certain things work in a deeply consensual system. In the UK, there are a whole set of political infrastructures that make cultural change problematic, but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. We’ve got to think about how to utilise the British political system. The fact is that we have a fairly dictatorial, centralised system. In terms of Local Transport Note 1/20, for example, that’s actually a rigid guidance framework that few other countries have.”

Right now, the Government is telling authorities: “This is how it’s got to be done or we cut your funding”, according to Cox. But, in fact, the British system doesn’t require everybody to be on board, he adds. What is required is bold leadership: “It favours governments who decide what they’re going to do and do it. I may be being deeply cynical here. But this is the system that we have, and we need to take advantage of it. We can take control of those processes and ensure that we embarrass people into doing the right thing. Politicians depend on credibility and electability.

“The one criticism I would make of UK authorities is that current thinking lacks ambition. But they are hamstrung by the financial implications of having to address a government that talks the talk but will not commit realistic funding to match the ambition. Small scale specifics need to be coupled to large-scale vision. Our tragedy is that we have a complete disconnect between the two scales, coupled with an alarming lack of capacity at local level outside of those already active and dedicated to forums such as cycling and active cities.”

Designing forgiving places

When I’m talking to fellow engineers, asks Deegan, am I thinking about taking control or stopping taking control? He uses the term “forgiveness” to describe his thinking to sustainable safety. This, he says, echoes the Dutch approach: how do you design a street to be forgiving? Forgiveness means looking at the way people might actually behave and looking at the consequences if they don’t behave the way we think they will. Providing a theoretically safe way through an environment is not enough if it doesn’t accommodate desire lines and personal choices.

So, how do forgiving spaces work with top-down “soft power”? Simple, says Cox. “Use the weaknesses of the system in order to deliver positive public goods.”

And don’t forget the place of serendipity. Individuals such as political leaders that have led by example, and advisors who have stayed the course, deserve our support, says Cox. The success or failure of a scheme often pivots on a moment of chance. We need to be in the ready to take advantage of this. We need to have the right people constantly pushing. But we also need to make the space for change, which is a creative process. Maybe, muses Cox, the tipping points of climate change and decarbonisation will be serendipitous for active travel.

With climate change as a factor, “this ceases to become an issue of individual self-righteousness or the entitlement of cyclists”, says Cox. “You either get it or you don’t. It’s about your kids’ futures.” 

The book’s contributors offer a clear message. In the context of the paradigm shift needed in transport thinking, cycling mobility and its infrastructures need to present a radical challenge to automobility. With politics so embedded in the issues, says Cox, “sustainable mobility in general, and cycling in particular, can only be successful if the car society is questioned, criticised and not the only discourse in politics and planning”.

The Politics of Cycling Infrastructure: spaces and (in)equality, edited by P Cox & T Koglin is available in paperback or EPUB from Policy Press at £26.99:

https://policy.bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/the-politics-of-cycling-infrastructure-in-europe. For 30% discount, use the code POCOX. (Or get 35% discount on ALL Bristol University Press and Policy Press books by signing up to their newsletter.)

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