Saturday, 3 May 2014

The trouble with Exceptionalism

I've had a couple of idea banging about in my head for a while which strictly speaking are only tangentially related to Glasgow Infrastructure.  I thought I'd dissemble here. First, an admission:

I don't have a twitter account.

Now, I’m not looking for some sort of hipster medal for this mundane factoid but, for various reasons to dull to go into, I never set up an account (and likely never will). That doesn't mean that I don't use Twitter. Far from it: I'll look at it pretty much every time I use a computer (several instances a day) but perhaps not in the most practical manner. Rather than having a timeline of my own populated by the tweets of those I'm following, I'll simply look up people and read their feeds (it's probable that if you are reading this and you have a twitter account, I may have read yours at some point).

I have a handful of people I "follow". Their conversations (and that of their regular interlocutors) provide sufficient fodder for my reading requirements; albeit often in a fractured, one-sided manner. In the old days of USEnet, this sort of behaviour used to be called "Lurking". (I wonder how many people have lurking followers like me?). Suffice to say, you can end up in some pretty unlikely places, far away from your own little world.

This is how I came across Rita Krishna and Vincent Stops - two councillors from the London borough of Hackney. My sister lives in London and I've visited a number of times but I know relatively little about it or its psychogeography - if we're talking London and its not the City and other central bits, Camden, Holloway or Teddington (where my aunt lives), I'm a bit lost. The most I knew about Hackney up until very recently was that it was a nickname for black taxis. Since the advent of the CEoGB and Twitter, I now know a little bit more about the area, specifically that it has one of the highest rates for cycling in Britain. That sounds good until you remember how truly terrible rates of cycling are in the UK as a whole - hovering somewhere around the 2% mark. Even if painted in the best possible light, nowhere in Britain has rates even close to those achieved in other countries with unarguably healthier cycling rates like Denmark or the Netherlands. In a country like ours with such pathetic modal share, its inevitable that if you dice up the boundaries finely enough and cherry-pick the results, somewhere turns out to be the "best". Places like Hackney should more accurately be referred to as "the least worst for cycling" (feel free to insert your own "one-eyed man" metaphors here).

But not if you are either of the two aforementioned councillors, judging by their twitter feeds. Both seem to be unabashedly proud of their borough's (somewhat arbitrary) record and vigorously defend it, even in the face of what come across like logical arguments from dissenting voices. Here's some examples:

Now a number of things occur to me as I traduce these two people by virtue of my limited knowledge of their wards and the opinions they demonstrate in their twitter feeds. Firstly: could I name any other councillors in any other borough, county or district directly by name? No. Why do I know theirs? Because they are vocal and outspoken. In other words, for good or ill, they engage with people, especially those they don't agree with; a rare thing in the filter-bubbled, group-thinking, bias-confirming modern-day internet. This is what democratically elected figures ought to do of course, but they arguably go above and beyond what is expected - they speak to people both within and without their wards.

Secondly, again for better or worse, they clearly believe what they are saying. I don't doubt for a second that Mr. Stops advocates effectively for mass public transportation, specifically buses. He is clearly very passionate about them and perhaps if I was a bus enthusiast too, I would appreciate this. Anecdotally-speaking (the worst kind of rhetoric, I know!) I have used buses for long enough to be grateful that I rarely need to use them any more, but I recognise that there are many people - particularly in a deprived city like Glasgow where the proportion of households with access to a car is in the minority - who absolutely rely on them, and that they are a preferable option for moving large numbers of people simultaneously, compared to an alternative scenario involving those same people travelling in private motor cars.

But buses are problematic. They are noisy, dirty and often too big for narrow urban spaces. Glasgow's two most polluted thoroughfares: Hope Street (officially the worst air quality in Scotland) and Union Street (a blighted, filthy embarrassment) - are utterly dominated by them. Buses primarily run on diesel, which while being nominally "greener" than the equivalent petrol engine (in terms of efficiency and C02 emissions) generate a whole host of dangerous, particulate-laden fumes. The sort of fumes that harm people, particularly those with chronic aerobic conditions like asthma or emphysema. As with HGVs, the sheer unwieldy bulk of buses presents a physical hazard to other road users; specifically vulnerable ones like pedestrians and people on bikes. Even in my pre-cycle advocacy days, I recognised that mixing bikes and bus lanes together was a terrible idea, not least because of the short-term speed differential. People on bikes tend to go at roughly the same speed at a constant rate - buses start, accelerate and stop suddenly - thus creating a scenario of the two vehicle types leap-frogging past each other. Anyone who has ever had a tailgating bus growling behind them will know this problem instinctively - the resentment and frustration emanating from the harassed, (probably) poorly paid driver is palpable.

And yet Mr. Stops appears to think they are the golden solution - he would like to see more people using buses and seems to think nothing of bikes mixing happily with them. He also thinks that Hackney serves cyclists well. Now it is easy for people well-versed in the language of cycle campaigning to dismiss him as deluded, which he may well be. But at the same time, this man, a person with the life experience, knowledge of local government and the necessary rhetorical skills to communicate and persuade people to vote for him, has come to this conclusion: Hackney is good for cycling. And in a sense, he is right.

The pity is that it could be so much better.

In a similar vein, Mrs Krishna also appears to think cycling is well-served, although she comes at it from a slightly different angle to Mr. Stops. She advocates mainly for pedestrians. This manifests itself in a combative approach to dealing with cycling advocates, often employing somewhat tortured logic to get her points across:

She seems to see urban geography as a zero-sum game, with anything perceived to be detrimental to the pedestrian as an affront to be vigorously opposed. She seems to view cycling as distinct minority pursuit for privileged eccentrics, rather than one of several complementary modes of transport, which fluidly segues between pedestrian and vehicle.

By denying the benefits to both sets of road users of implementing good cycle infrastructure, Mrs Krishna creates a false dichotomy - either cycles or pedestrians - which is ultimately detrimental to the well-being of both and ignores the primary problem source: the over-riding deference to motor vehicles. Either a wilful disregard or an apparent lack of imagination prevents her from seeing that the family that "can't walk together holding hands" without an vastly expansive pavement just might (if conditions were favourable) make the same journey by bike and might enjoy it better if they did. Pedestrians and bikes needn't be in conflict with each other. The same goes for wheelchair users or those who use mobility scooters - improving cycle infrastructure invariably helps these groups too. And yet Mrs Krishna ties herself in all sorts of rhetorical knots to create this unnecessary conflict:

Thus reading her time-line descends into a depressing zero-sum game of brinkmanship, invective and victimisation.

I feel part of the problem is due to the two councillors belief in the intrinsically special nature of Hackney. They believe that the sorts of tried-and-tested solutions offered in such things as the Dutch CROW manual aren't applicable to Hackney's unique situation. From what I've seen through the narrow window of twitter and the internet in general, positive things have been implemented there. Some of the techniques employed - route unbundling, filtered permeability - are tools in the Dutch kit for creating cycle-friendly cities. Other approaches - the dogmatic commitment to the removal of one-way systems, regardless of utility - are less progressive.

A cycle route is only as good as its weakest point: it doesn't matter how good individual parts of it are, people will not use facilities if the parts in between - in the case of Hackney, major thoroughfares like the A10 - are still just as hostile and frightening as ever. There are elements specific to Hackney - a younger population, a lower level of car-ownership, a lower density of Underground stations - which explain its relative success in cycling despite the conditions: not because of them.

(As a slight aside, its funny how when foreign observers saw the first autobahns being developed in 1930s Germany, no-one appears to have said "Oh well, that might work okay in Nazi Germany but it's just a part of their fascist culture. It wouldn't work here...". Instead, there was immediate recognition that autobahns were a universally better, safer way to transport large volumes of motor vehicles between cities in short time-frames - of course, the downsides of the sort of urban sprawl they enabled wouldn't be apparent for decades.)

There is a firm belief that the interventions of the council are solely responsible for the slightly-above-average levels of cycling. On the contrary, I think its likely that (if it hasn't done so already) modal share will hit what is referred to in mathematics and the study of algorithms as a Local Maximum. This means that it will reach a peak - well below its theoretical optimum (the "Global Maximum")  - and will not grow any further unless a step-change occurs; specifically a change that may well be (temporarily) detrimental. This is a key principle in a technique for solving a family of problems called a Hill-Climbing Algorithm - sometimes things need to get worse before they get better. We accept this as part of normal life - for example, we put up with the disruption caused by roadworks on the basis that the surface will be repaired and improved. And yet when talking about building cycle infrastructure, any impact on other road users or other interested parties (e.g. local businesses and their obsession with parking) is used to justify compromising or simply not implementing changes that could be helpful to all.

Put plainly, if a major change in circumstances doesn't occur in Hackney - namely, the installation of a network of segregated cycle paths on major routes or traffic congestion reaches truly unbearable levels - its likely that cycling will stall and stagnate, as the borough runs out of the sort of people who are willing to cycle in the currently hostile environment, or the churn of people taking up the activity versus those who give it up will reach an equilibrium.

My worry is two-fold: if cycling modal share reaches a (sub-optimal) peak, people like Mr. Stops may well shrug their shoulders and say "oh well, that's the best its going to get. The demand for cycling just isn't there - MOAR BUSES!". Given that what goes on in London can have knock-on effects for the rest of the country, you might have on-looking councils who then say "well, if it can' get any better in Hackney, should we even try?".

Thus it becomes ever more vital that cycle advocates engage with people like Mr. Stops and Mrs Krishna - people who are at least having the conversation about sustainable transport - and hopefully engender a change of heart on their part. That's the hard part of course. The crux of what I'm saying is as follows:

What would it take for someone to persuade me that I am wrong about some area of knowledge where I felt a rock-solid sense of being correct?

How would I even recognise this situation if it occurred? Would I persuade myself that I felt this way all along ("Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia...")? As I write this, I am genuinely struggling to think of a time when I have done an absolute volte-face on something more important than musical taste or brands of beer. The closest I can think right now is my attitude to Shared Space, which has evolved from a position of admiration for its supposed aims and benefits, to one of scepticism. But then this was borne of a detached sense of ignorance - I didn't have a personal intellectual stake in the belief in shared space or otherwise.

I doubt the same thing could be said of the two councillors, whose sense of civic worth seems to at least partly stem from the idea that Hackney's "success" in  cycling, walking and the use of public transport stems from direct interventions by the council. How difficult would it be to accept that, well, maybe your policies didn't have that much influence and that you are fundamentally wrong on key issues such as segregated facilities and one-way systems. Once a level of belief has been engendered in someone, is it ever possible to contemplate a reversal?

Lastly, is it even right to concentrate energies on people like the two councillors? Would it not be more useful to target those who don't engage with the conversation? For example, the refuseniks of Kensington & Chelsea, or the deluded designers of Glasgow's Clyde Gateway, or the silent partners in the backroom discussions that lead to such car-centric monstrosities as this, this or even this?

Maybe the answer is to engage with anyone who is willing to listen, and then persistently badger those that won't. Perhaps more pertinently for me, the solution is not to take what people say on twitter too seriously; lurking is clearly bad for one's mental disposition...