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.

1 comment:

  1. Well done Mags and the other POP'ers (?) it certainly feels like a tipping-point! Did Mark Beaumont turn up?