I was at the Cycling Scotland conference and tried to do a bit of live tweeting. Derek MacKay MSP stated in his speech that he prefers not to be photographed in hi-viz, to which I tweeted:

I was rather surprised by the reaction that this sparked off on twitter. Firstly, there was the comment that wearing nice clothes was not going to make the roads safer. But It was a comment that rather missed the point, as neither wearing hi-viz nor a helmet does. To make the roads safer we need to start with a danger reduction approach, which means reducing danger at source. The point of the tweet was to point out that we finally have a transport minster who is not following the Taliban approach to road safety and does not feel that he has to set an example by wearing hi-vis and a helmet to be photographed. Instead, for cycling occasions he is always photographed in normal clothes for press photo shoots, even when some around him choose to do otherwise.

More tweets followed from a number of people, suggesting that I was in some way “anti-Lycra”, and was in some way blaming people in lycra for putting off others. This is where trying to discuss issues on Twitter can get very confused, sometimes it can be very hard to make a nuanced point in 140 characters. My comment above was very much about the use of images and the message which such images can send. There were also comments from other about infrastructure being more important that clothing, but in many ways the two are interlinked.

Why is clothing important in normalising cycling? Ask anyone in the fashion industry and they will tell you that clothes speak volumes about who you are and how you feel. In places where cycling is a normal means of getting from A to B, people just ride in ordinary clothes. They don’t get dressed up to ride a bicycle, unless they are doing so to ride for sport (there is also a misunderstanding about Danish “cycle chic”, Copenhageners don’t dress up to ride a bike, that’s just normal dress for them). In the UK some people seem to believe that it is necessary to dress in a certain way in order to ride a bicycle, for what ever reason. Part of this is to do with something I refer to as the Taliban approach to road safety, the failed idea that making people dress in a particular way makes the roads safer – it doesn’t. Indeed, the promotion of hi-viz and helmets can create a barrier to cycling. Added to this, the motor lobby is always keen to promote the use of hi-viz and helmets, as a means of transferring blame to the victim, and to avoid liability.

Does this mean that we should all start to ride in ordinary clothes as a political statement? No, of course not. There are those who will do so, but for most people the choice of cycle clothing is more about comfort, or more correctly, comfort and fear. Before I moved to Aberdeen I had never felt the need to wear Hi-viz, but in Aberdeen I felt different, it was/is hostile to anyone cycling (or even walking). So I bought a yellow cycling jacket, which made me feel better, but made no real difference to the way I was treated. Drivers still treated me as if they couldn’t see me. Over time, I came to realise that in places like Aberdeen drivers simply don’t look for people cycling, as there are so few. Later I came to realise that bright lights were more effective for being seen in a hostile environment, but not a solution. Like bright clothing, they are a survival mechanism (the real solution is to change the road environment).

In places where there are more cyclists (and pedestrians), drivers are more likely to look out for those more vulnerable road users. However, that doesn’t automatically lead to greater safety or a feeling of safety, you only have to look at images from London to see that there is plenty of fear there. There is a flaw in the “safety in numbers” theory, the death rate on UK roads per Km walked or cycled is higher than in many other parts of Europe. In places where cycling is common, it is infrastructure and legal structure that make cycling (and walking) safe, and this is why you see people of all ages, wearing normal clothes, using bicycles as transport.

In the UK there is another thing going on, which has to do with group identity. This has led to the term MAMIL or “Middle Aged Men In Lycra”, and generally refers to male cyclists who treat travelling to work as an adventure sport. There are those who justify wearing Lycra for commuting on the grounds that they have to ride fast due to the distance of their commute. It is an interesting thing that the average cycle commuting distance in the UK is longer than on the Continent. This is probably because so many cycle commuters in the UK are keen cyclists and like to use their commutes as training rides. On the Continent, in places where cycling is seen as normal (something the 95% engage in, not just the 5%), the sort people who in the UK have 1-5 km journeys and would drive or take the bus, ride a bicycle instead. So there are a great deal more short journeys by bike. For longer distances, the Contintentals are more likely to travel by multimodal means, for example: cycling to the station to take a train, and then walking or using another bicycle at the other end, to get to their final destination. That is not to say that there aren’t people commuting distances of greater than 5 Km by bicycle in these countries, it is just that they are more likely to use an e-bike, so that they don’t arrive sweaty.

Is the MAMIL image a problem? I have been accused of being anti-Lycra or even anti-cycling for using the term MAMIL. Neither is true, there is a place for Lycra and it fine in its place. However, it can be a barrier to making cycling more inclusive, as it can put people off, especially those not currently cycling. No doubt there are some cyclists who will say that the sort of people who are put off by MAMILs wouldn’t cycle anyway. However, if you go to a Women’s Cycle Forum and listen, you will find women saying that the perceived need for lycra, hi-viz and helmets does put them off cycling. A case study: L. is a woman over the age of 40 who says she is put off by the MAMIL image of cycling. However, on a trip to Bruges, L. was persuaded to try riding a bicycle because people of all ages, shapes and sizes were cycling in normal clothes. She now occasionally rides a bicycle in Edinburgh, and although L. is not a regular cyclist, she now has greater understanding of cycling, which is useful, given that her current job is in transport policy.

Before going any further, I will return to the point I made above, people should be free to wear whatever they feel is comfortable for their cycling journey. Images are important here, and where everyday cycling is being promoted, images which show hi-viz and helmets should be avoided. It is always disappointing to see organisations which soak up large amounts of funding, using images of people on bicycles dressed up in hi-viz and helmets. Generally, the majority of people are less likely to engage in an activity that looks like a minority activity, where you need to dress up in specific clothes and that may be dangerous. This makes trying to increase funding for active travel much harder, as it is seen to only benefit the few rather than the many. If you make cyclists look like a small outgroup, it going to be far, far harder to get those with the power to take space from motor vehicles to act. The Dutch didn’t get their famous cycle infrastructure by campaigning for “cyclists”, they did it for the children. Now that those children have grown up, they are the most relaxed parents in Europe, as they don’t have to worry about the safety of their children outwith the home. If we want the same here, we have to make active travel attractive and desirable, and we also have to make it normal and inclusive.

Cycle chic inspires others

Remember images are important

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The Volkswagen scandal (aka #dieselgate), where the VW motor group was caught cheating pollution emissions tests in the US, has been rumbling on for some time now. The media are having a field day, drivers are starting to believe they should receive compensation. The one issue which has not been fully addressed is who has really been harmed?

Mostly the scandal is being portrayed by the media as a “consumer rights” issue, there is some talk about protection of the environment, although if most car buyers really cared about “the environment”, they would have bought an electric car or a hybrid. Some people have written to the papers to say as much, fully admitting that for most drivers “the environment” is low on their list of priorities and that cheap motoring is far more important to them. Very little is being said in the media about the impact of air pollution on human health caused by motor vehicles – this is the real scandal.

We know that air pollution is a serious issue, that is why there are Air Quality Standards (in the EU and around the world) which are (supposed to be) legally enforceable. Air pollution is an invisible killer, you can’t see it, you can’t smell or taste most of the cocktail of pollutants, but it is killing us. In much of Europe urban air is not fit to breathe, the major cause of this is motor vehicles, especially diesel cars. Although petrol cars are not as harmless as some in the media and the motoring lobby would have us believe, 22% of modern petrol cars fail to achieve emission limits on the road. Furthermore, particle emissions from new petrol engines (gasoline direct injection or GDI) are higher than from equivalent diesel vehicles.

The true scandal is that across the EU there are 500,000 premature deaths every year, also 250,000 hospital admissions which, in addition to the human costs and suffering, also cost the economy 100,000,000 lost working days. This all adds up to over €940,000,000 (£665m) in lost productivity per year. These are the real scandals!

Let’s be clear, Volkswagen is not the only culprit, every major car manufacturer is selling vehicles that fail to meet EU air pollution limits on the road:


All this is happening despite the fact that EURO 6 regulations require cars to be tested under “normal driving conditions” – these rules were introduced in 2007. As yet, the regulators are not using portable emission monitoring systems (PEMS) to measure the actual pollution from vehicle exhausts in real-world driving emission (RDE) tests. Why not? Could it have anything to do with the fact that the supposedly independent testing bodies get up to 70% of their funding from the motor industry? Or is it because of the direct power of the motoring lobby? Either way, our democracy (and our health) is directly threatened by such lobbying, not just at the EU level – Westminster is, if anything, more corrupt than Brussels.

It is time we all stood up and said enough is enough! There are no technical reasons why the existing emission limits could not be met quickly and urban air pollution rapidly improved. Yes it would mean that motoring would become more expensive for individuals, but the current situation is that we are all paying the price, not just those causing the pollution. The benefits of private motoring to the few are massively outweighted by the cost to all of us. I agree with Keith Taylor, the Green MEP for south-east England:

For too long European car makers have been ducking the EU’s rules to enable them to keep their highly polluting cars on the road. The huge scandal with Volkswagen on car pollution rules must focus the minds of EU politicians and the British government. Air pollution kills tens of thousands in the UK every year. With the added unchecked emissions from Volkswagen cars, I worry about how much worse the situation actually is.  

We need a truly independent European type approval authority, this should be funded by a levy on each new vehicle sold, paid for by the manufacturers with robust regulation to ensure independent testing. This should also be backed up with strict annual testing of vehicles, to ensure they continue to meet acceptable pollution limits. The current MOT test is not fit for purpose and needs to be brought up to date, with heavy penalties for both tester and motorist, if they are caught trying to cheat the system.

It is a matter of urgency for the European Commission to bring forward proposals for Euro 7 emissions limits so that the limits for diesel, petrol and natural gas vehicles are all the same, and also to ensure WHO health limits are met throughout Europe. Closer to home, we need make all our built-up areas low emission zones. We cannot choose where we breathe, so we must stop vehicles polluting our air. The technology to clean up vehicle exhausts is available and costs little. It is a small price to pay compared to the nearly €1 trillion (£1.36 billion) spent annually on health care and lost productivity. Vehicles with engines, running on whichever fuel, must be stopped from polluting our air or prevented from accessing our towns and cities. We should ALL have the right to clean air wherever we are as we ALL need to breathe.

Don’t just take my word of it, here is Dr Ian Mudway at Routes to Clean Air, Health Effects of Air Pollution.

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My idea of a Cargo Bike Club took a small step forward today, but first a wee bit of history:

Back in the autumn of 2010, Ulli and I were faced with the problem of getting a large pumpkin home from the allotment (not a problem that we have had since due to the poor summers). The solution I suggested then was to get a cargo bike, but at that time such bikes were very few and far between in Scotland, not that there are that many more now. This led me to come up with the idea of a Cargo Bike Club as a means of making cargo bikes available to the wider population (and a way of kick-starting the market for cargo bikes in Scotland).

When I first floated the idea of the Cargo Bike Club, it attracted a lot of positive comments. My initial idea was to use the City Car Club model, where the users would pay an annual fee to join the club and then have self service access to the bikes for a small hourly hire rate. There are, however, a few technical issues with security and self service access, which I have yet to overcome.

One person who thought he could over come these problems was Will Vaughan who took my idea (he did contact me and ask first) and started cargobikehire.com. However, he was planning on using a prototype technology from a small German startup called LOCK 8. I have seen the Kickstarter campaign raising funds to develop the locking system, but was sceptical about the level of security it would offer (the cable shown in the pictures is up to Solid Secure Gold level, as required by insurance companies). [Up date: I met Philipp Meyer-Scheling, the MD of Lock8 at EuroBike and am hoping to have another meeting with him in November] At the present time, it doesn’t appear he has managed to get the self service access up and running, but he does have a Bullitt available for hire in the Hereford area, so all credit to him.

The idea of the Cargo Bike Club has continued to gnaw away at me, and I have re-visited the idea a few times, but mostly I have gotten on with other projects like the Edinburgh Festival of Cycling. Where is all this rambling going, I hear you ask? Well, this year the Edinburgh Festival of Cycling Ltd has acquired an Urban Arrow cargo bike, and from today it is available to hire when not in use for company business.

Urban Arrow for hire

It is a small step, but it is a start, this is currently the only cargo bike available for hire in Edinburgh. Who knows, if this bike proves popular, there may yet be a Cargo Bike Club in Edinburgh. I am still working towards getting it off the ground one day.

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There has just been a shout of Die Fledermaus from the kitchen, nothing to do with the opera by younger Johann Strauss, but Ulli was on the phone to her mother and spotted the first bat of 2015. It was probably Pipistrellus pipistrellus or Pipistrellus pygmaeus (based on previous identifications). It was earlier than last year, which was on the 15th April, but not as early as some years, 26th March 2012 and 30th March 2009.

It is great to have such opportunities to see wild life in the centre of a city, which one of the reasons I so enjoy living in Edinburgh.

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The people behind Pedal on Parliament have just realised a new video, Katie rides to School, shows how if we were to make the roads safer everyone benefits. So please watch the video, join us on 25th April 2015 to Pedal on Parliament and share the message. We will all be better off when Katie rides to School!

Katie cycles to school. Katie loves cycling to school. Some of her friends do it too.

Katie’s mum bought a bike, too, to take Katie’s brother to nursery. Katie’s mum was surprised it was actually quicker on the bike. Now, when she doesn’t have to go to work, she has time to stop into town and meet her friends. On her way home, she pops into the shops.

Katie’s dad was told by his doctor to lose some weight, so he cycles too.

And at the weekend, they all go out together.

Katie cycles to school though she can only do it because her town built a cycle path very close to the school. Before that, she would have to ride in the road or on the pavement. It was just easier to go in the car.

Katie’s mum can only cycle into town because traffic is gone from the high street. Before, it was clogged with cars. It was just easier to go to the supermarket.

Katie’s dad only started cycling to work because they built a cycle track on the road on his office. Whatever the doctor said, he didn’t like having to deal with all the traffic before. He just wanted to get back safely to his family.

We believe making it safe for Katie and her friends to cycle to school, Katie’s mum to cycle to the shops, and Katie’s dad to cycle to work makes it better for everyone. Including people who don’t even cycle, like shopkeepers, pedestrians, and even other car drivers.

So that’s why we pedalled on parliament – If more kids like Katie are to cycle to school, we need safe space for cycling. If more people are to shop in the local town centre, we need roads where cars don’t dominate. If more people were to cycle to work, we need roads designed with cycling in mind.

This takes investment, but it is investment will pay back tenfold. If we do this then Scotland’s people will be healthier, our towns will be wealthier, our roads will quieter, our air will be cleaner, and our children will do better in school.But, more importantly, we will all be happier.

So join us, for Katie, for everyone – Pedal on Parliament.

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