Thursday 24 May 2012

Reply to an MSP

Following is a letter I received from Annabel Goldie  MSP (Con) and my response, which will be sent to Annabel.
Dear Dr Brennan,

Thank you for your recent e-mail regarding the Pedal on Parliament event on Saturday 28th April.

Scottish Conservatives do want to see a safer environment for walking and cycling and encourage such exercise as carbon free alternatives to short car journeys. 

Given the recent concerns about cyclist safety in Scotland’s cities, I think it is right and proper for resources to be used to make cycling safer in urban areas.  However there are parts of Scotland where this is less of an issue and I do not, therefore, agree that local authorities should be compelled to invest 5% of their transport budgets into cycling.

Cycling could and should be promoted as one way of achieving our basic transport needs, but it is clearly not suitable for all journeys, as there are additional challenges in rural areas.
That said I do believe we should be integrating cycling into local transport strategies, and that some steps could be taken straight away. 
If we hope to encourage cycling we must ensure that the safety of cyclists is improved. One way to do that would be through improved training. We must also look at what our schools are doing to ensure that our children are introduced to the benefits of cycling at a young age, that they are encouraged to cycle to school, and that they are given training to do so safely.
However, cyclists have obligations. Some cyclists ignore red lights, thereby endangering themselves and others; others do not use proper lighting on their bikes either at night or when visibility is poor; and others still neglect to wear helmets. That is not the responsibility of Government or motorists; it is up to the cyclists to behave responsibly and to undertake the appropriate training.
Also, the UK Government is leading discussions at European level on further improving standards for heavy goods vehicles to help reduce accidents caused by poor visibility. 
The implementation of other measures, such as lowering speed limits and making local authorities spend a certain amount of their budget on cycling, will depend on local decisions and need to reflect local priorities. Nevertheless, local authorities do need to do more to improve the safety of cyclists. Some councils have very good cycle-friendly schemes, but others have been found wanting. We must do more to invest in cycling infrastructure, not least to ensure that our roads are up to cycle quality.
Scottish Conservatives will support sustainable travel initiatives and continue to promote cycling and walking and their associated health and environmental benefits.
My colleague, Margaret Mitchell MSP, has tabled a motion which calls on the parliament to welcome ‘Big Bike Day’ which will take place on 3 June in Hamilton to inspire local people to take up cycling.
Action to improve road safety can and should be taken now.
Thank you for taking the time to contact me.
Yours sincerely,
Annabel M Goldie MSP
West of Scotland Region
Here is my response:

Dear Ms Goldie,

Many thanks for replying to my letter where I was asking you to support motion Motion S4M-02764. Whilst I am pleased that you agree that action to improve road safety can and should be taken now I feel there are a number of things that you discuss in your letter that I need to reply to.

I was interested to hear that you do not think that there is no need to make cycling safer in rural areas. I myself am from a village in East Dunbartonshire which I would consider rural (Torrance), and the first 4 miles of my commute to work are on rural roads. One such road that I can take to work, is Balmore Road. If I chose to take this route which is the quickest and flatest, it is often the most unpleasant part of my commute. Whilst large sections of the road have a 30mph speed limit many drivers ignore this and at the same time either pass me too close or endanger other road users with their impatience. For example this type of close pass is not uncommon ( Roads like this would significantly benefit from segregated cycle infrastructure. As it stands there is no way I would take my children on a bike there or on any of the surrounding busy A roads. Whilst there are a couple of alternative cycle routes that I could take my children on such as quieter country roads, or canal paths, to get to them we have to traverse sections of busy road. These back roads and canal paths often do not go where we want to go anyway.

Effectively, to get anywhere with my children the only safe option is to take the car. That is wrong.

Further one of my fellow POP organisers (Sally Hinchcliffe) who comes from Dumfries and Galloway (D&G the second most rural council area in Scotland) points out that:

1. Even somewhere as rural as D&G, most journeys are short, below the classic 5 miles that makes it easy cycling distance.  A lot of the population is concentrated in and around Dumfries itself 
2. In rural areas, investment might look quite different - for instance bike-enabled buses, bike racks at bus stops or better route signage rather than cycle tracks, enabling people to mix and match.
3. Given the problems with rural bus services, if cycling isn't encouraged then for many journeys the only option is the car, leading to problems of isolation for teenagers and anyone who can't afford to run a car or drive it as much as they used to.
4. Investment in cycling in rural areas also benefits tourism as you've got a large number of people coming just to cycle. 
5. We're actually not asking for a blanket 5% in local authority areas but something approaching that based on their existing modal share. 

Looking at point 4 in particular, spending money on cycle infrastructure provides vital investment in local economies. Cycle tourism accounts for 3% of the tourism market in Scotland, which to put that in perspective, is a same market share as golf (VisitScotland). The potential for increasing this market is massive. The European Parliament itself concluded that EU cycling tourism has a total economic impact of €54 billion per annum. Therefore, if cycle infrastructure in rural areas was brought up to the standard of the best European countries it would significantly improve local rural economies. It should also be remembered that cycle tourists tend to spend more money in local businesses than car drivers.

Rural areas need cycle infrastructure investment just as much as urban.

I completely agree with your points about increase training and exposure of young children to cycling. I myself have three young children (7, 5 and 2) who are at different stages of learning to cycle. However, despite this exposure and my obvious enthusiasm for cycling, I am still very cautious about my children cycling in my local area. Cycle training will only take them so far. Cycling really should be as easy as riding a bike. We only need to look to continental Europe to see that it is not a focus on training that gets people of all types on bikes, it is a focus on quality infrastructure.

I was surprised by your comments about the obligations of cyclists for their own safety. That goes without saying. Just as it goes without saying that drivers improve their own safety by not using mobile phones or being drunk whilst driving. However, I wouldn't expect that the issues of drink driving or mobile phones would be raised in a campaign to improve driver safety through improved junction design. Likewise I feel that focusing on a minority of irresponsible cyclists, whom I feel, and have no responsibility for, only deflects attention from the main issues that our roads are only designed with cars in mind.

Interestingly, with regards to wearing helmets, the science of their efficacy remains very inconclusive. My line of work requires me to have an understanding of brain trauma, and I have looked at the scientific evidence for and against the use of helmets. Not only is the evidence for their use inconclusive, there are in fact arguments that they may, in certain circumstances, lead to greater mortality and death. For a more detailed discussion on the subject may I refer you to this resource ( Once again we should also look to the continent, where for example in the Netherlands almost no-one wears a helmet and cyclists suffer lower rates of head injury per mile travelled than in the UK.

Whilst I understand that some policy needs to come from local authorities, and that local decisions must be made about implementation, with government setting the targets for 10% of journeys to be taken by bike by 2020, a target I am sure you support, this will only happen if policy is led by central government and funding is made available to local authorities.

We are a point in time where Scotland must decided if it wants to continue down the path of increased car use, increased obesity, more heart disease, and a worsening environment. There is an alternative, and that is to change government policy to not only encourage more active travel, but to build a society that makes it the obvious choice. I hope you and the Conservative party can help us to make this happen.

Together, we can make Scotland a cycle friendly nation.

Your sincerely

Dr David Brennan (Joint organiser of Pedal on Parliament)

Tuesday 15 May 2012

Time to Reflect

I think the dust has just about settled from Pedal on Parliament. Just about. So having made sure I thanked everybody, and boy, was there a lot of people who deserved a lot of thanks, it feels the time is now right to reflect on what happened in April.

There have been plenty of people writing about the day. That in itself is a victory. It feels like there is a bit of momentum now. Perhaps Scotland has finally turned the corner. However, from my point of view, what was it like? Where did this all come from, and what did it feel like to be part of this?

Anyone who knows me, and many know me by my on-line name Magnatom, knows that I am passionate about cycling. That wasn't always the case, and if I was to rewind back to just over 7 years ago, I didn't own a bike and I hadn't even considered riding one. However, with my wife pregnant and our first child's arrival imminent, I had a choice to make.

Buy a second car to get to work, or buy a bike.

I chose bike.

Glasgow was, back in 2005, an interesting place to cycle. My initial commute was only 5 miles, but 5 very urban miles. I quickly realised that cycling on the road was not just a challenge to me physically, but it challenged my sanity as well. It was a fairly hostile place, which wasn't helped by the fact that I rarely if ever saw another cyclist.

The vast majority of drivers were fine, but a proportion, didn't either like you being there, or more often, didn't understand what to do when then came across you. Cyclists were such a rare breed in Glasgow, no-one knew how to pass one safely. What could I do to protect myself? Buy a car? No, that wasn't the answer. I bought a Helmet Camera instead. The rest is, as they say is history. I became well known (infamous) for filming my commute and questioning errant drivers about why they felt justified to endanger me.

During all of this I tried my best to improve my own road skills and became more confident mixing with heavier traffic. Eventually I built up the courage to take the most direct and busiest route, and I began to enjoy filtering and flowing with the heavy traffic. I became a vehicular cyclist.

I remember at this time hearing people calling for segregated cycle routes.  

WHAT? Why would we do that? It's never going to happen, it will cost to much, there isn't the space, and we have some perfectly good cycle routes already....they are called roads! I love cycling on the roads, I don't want forced off them!

Something changed though. My kids got older and started riding bikes. I was then faced with the same question that every parent has to ask, where is it safe for my child to cycle? The reality struck me as quite depressing. The cul-de-sac I am in is ok, although even here some people whip around the corners too fast, but beyond that there is no way I would let them cycle on their own. There is a route I am happy to cycle with them on, some local quiet country lanes, but the main roads where I live are a no-go zone.

But cycling is safe!! Isn't it?

Yes it is, certainly when you look at the statistics. But look at this video.

I came to no harm here, so statistically this was a safe overtake. The reality is that it was bloomin' scary, and I am a commute hardened 30 something Lycra lout (apparently). If this is scary for me, imagine how a 7 year old would find it. Would running campaigns getting cyclists to wear hi-vis jackets and helmets, or asking drivers to be a wee bit nicer and give us more room make roads like that feel safe for a 7 year old?


So what do we do? Accept the way things are? Buy another car? Make sure that as soon as my kids are old enough that they can drive and get them a car?


The answer was staring me in the face. Change the infrastructure. Asking people to change their attitudes, to change the culture of our must have a car, must drive it culture would have, and has had little impact. The only way I could get my oldest and youngest kids on roads like this is to make it safe. To do that, we need infrastructure. Properly designed, properly funded, properly maintained, infrastructure.

Imagine that road in the video above with a good quality segregated cycle lane at both sides of it. My son and I could happily cycle along that without the associated risks and fears, and that HGV could have flown past without even knowing we were there. Everyone would be happy.

It's a pipe dream surely....

I then heard about the Cycle Embassy for Great Britain. They believed it could happen, and should happen. At last a group that were looking beyond campaigning for 'window dressing'. It was time to think big! So, with great enthusiasm I invited members of CEoGB and other Glasgow cyclists along on a infrastructure ride of part of my commute, and yes, they agreed with me, there was space, the roads could be designed to keep everyone happy, and we could get people on bikes in Glasgow!

But what to do now? How could we get politicians to listen? Shouting from blogs and twitter was unfortunately preaching to the converted. The misfortune of one poor cyclist in London turned the tables. Then the Times Cities safe for Cycling campaign arrived. That felt like a turning point. All of a sudden and within the space of a month or so, cycling not only arrived on the agenda, it was on the agenda in a very positive way. The media's attitude towards cycling felt like it had completely flipped. All the reporters who already cycled and 'understood', suddenly had the ear of their editors.

Perhaps cycling will sell newspapers after all....  

It was a start, one that myself and many other cycling campaigners realised that we had to grasp with both hands. Could this be our Stop the Kindermort moment?

Then the LCC announced that there would be a Big Ride in London. A protest/celebration of cycling that asked politicians to look abroad to places like the Netherlands, to see how we could make our roads a safe place for everyone. This got me very excited. I needed to support this! Then, after realising that I couldn't afford the rail tickets, and that it would be a lot of hassle to get the bike there anyway, I felt defeated. Only for a moment though.

Let's cycle on Holyrood!

At last I had managed to come up with a crazy idea, that wasn't crazy at all! It made so much sense! It wasn't Westminster or London Mayors that we needed to convince, Scotland is devolved. We have our own issues, our own policies, our own infrastructure budget, and unfortunately our own cycling deaths that mean that we need to do this here. No-one would do it for us.

I've had a few crazy ideas in the past, nothing that ever got anywhere, so rather than post my crazy idea on my blog and look a complete fool when it got ignored, I decided to test the waters with two trusted fellow campaigners. Sally Hinchcliffe and Kim Harding. They both knew me well enough to let me down gently. They didn't. Amazingly they liked it, and so Pedal on Parliament was born...well actually Ride on Holyrood was born. Luckily that name changed!

I've mentioned some of the detail about the lead up to POP elsewhere, so I won't rehash it, but it was a fascinating, infuriating, liberating, and ultimately inspiring experience to work with 7 other cyclists (in our spare time) to go from nothing to the big day.

The day before POP, I made my way over to Edinburgh (in a car...yes I know...) and stayed the night with Kim and Ulli (Thanks!). I had a surprisingly good sleep that night, up until 5am, when my brain decided it was time to get into POP mode. I remember being a little nervous but more excited than anything else. I just wanted to get to the Meadows.

The time soon came to head off. Kim and I proudly sporting our POP t-shirts left on the short ride to the park. We arrived at about 12:30pm  and there was a small band of cyclists mulling around. Was this the first POPers? No time to loose though, as our destination was not the Meadows, but POP28 HQ. Andy's flat. Andy's flat was a flat of many bikes, and that was before we brought our own. There was a definite buzz in that flat with lots of comings and goings and much deliberation over megaphones and last minute bike adjustments (i.e. putting a kids bell on my bike!). Oh and there was the cat...

The POP cat
It was shortly after I had heard that Mark Beaumont was running late (caught in traffic!? You mean he didn't cycle here!!?) that the doubts started to set in. Looking at the Meadows in the distance there were still no huge crowds and it was approaching 2pm! Perhaps it was going to be a damp squib. I remember confiding in Kim that we may have overcooked it.

So we get to the park and yes, it is quieter than I would have liked. I remember someone asking me, so are you happy with the turn out? At that time there was maybe a couple of hundred. I of course lied and said, oh yes, this is looking good. In reality I was really starting to worry by that point. Luckily there was a lot to do and that took my mind off it. I had an interview to give, people to talk to about megaphones, police to chat to etc. I switched off from what was going on around me. Then, and it is a moment captured in the video below, I stopped doing all the organiser stuff and turned towards the crowd of cyclists.

Where did they come from!!!?

What had 15 minutes before looked like a crowd of a few hundred had suddenly swelled to a few thousand!! It was a fabulous moment, where I felt a weight lifting off my shoulders. There was still a lot to do, I had a speech to give! However, at that point I realised that this was a success. All the hard work by an army of volunteers had paid off. We were delivering the strong message, stronger than even we had hoped for, to our politicians. We weren't alone in wanting Scotland to be a cycle friendly nation.

The video above also captures the moments silence and the moments after it when I ask Lynne McNicoll if she is ok (her step son was killed cycling earlier in the year). In the end I was the more emotional than she was. It was a very powerful moment.

Then there was the ride itself. That was great fun, although I almost wished I wasn't at the front. It was great to be helping to lead the ride down to Holyrood (although Sally was shooting off ahead!), but it must have been great fun in the middle of the crowd. Mind you, being at the front did have some advantages. I got to see the perplexed looks on peoples faces when they saw us coming towards them with 2999 other cyclists behind us!

Arriving at Holyrood and seeing cyclist, after cyclist, after cyclist arriving afterwards was pretty amazing. I also remember being a bit stunned when Sally, having just got off the phone to one of the marshals at the back of the procession of cyclists, suggested that as we stood there basking in the sunshine, yes it was sunny, that cyclists were still leaving the Meadows 1.5 miles away. That really impressed me!

I must admit I did start to panic again at this point. All of our preparations with regards to a PA system had failed. Two load hailers that we had got hold off didn't work (even when we got the right batteries for them) and there was no sign of the promised portable PA system that, might, just might be at Holyrood for the speeches. With thousands of cyclists turning up and waiting with great anticipation for my speech...aye right... I was concerned that maybe about 4 people would hear us. However, my fears were allayed when Ruggtomcat arrived plonked the speaker down and threw the head set over to me just before we were due to start the speeches. Phew! Mind you, even that system was wholly inadequate considering the numbers that turned up.

Anyone who knows me knows that I like talking. It's a family trait. So come the time for the speeches I was raring to go. Starting off with the multitude of thank you's, which were all VERY much deserved (oh and the police who I forgot to thank at the time...oops!), and then onto a few words about what it was all about. Making Scotland's roads safe for all! Then onto the other speeches, which were all good speeches. Two stuck in my mind more than the rest. Lynne McNicolls, for just having the sheer guts to get up and talk after loosing her step son earlier in the year. That was humbling. Getting on her bike that day was a triumph in itself, never mind then delivering a rousing speech! I also remember Sarah Boyack's speech. To be accurate I remember the minutes before her speech when I kept fumbling with the PA headset to try and make it sit on her head. It helps if you have it the right way up. To be fair I also remember the speech, which apart from the Greens who have been supporters from the start, was the most positive towards POP.

Speeches over, photographs taken, and a couple of interviews and a bit of chatting later, and it was all over.

What a day!! I still don't think it has sunk in yet how amazing the day was.

Of course for Team POP it was time for a liquid celebration. Not a celebration in the sense that there was any great victory. It was a celebration of an amazing start. The start of a journey.

Our destination?

The cycle friendly nation of Scotland.