My experience as a CTC Conference first-timer

Armadillos used to separate different road users

My experience as a CTC Conference first-timer

CTC and Cyclenation hosted their 34th annual cycle campaigners’ conference in Liverpool last month and as a new volunteer for CTC, I was keen to go along to see for myself the important work they do, as well as the many challenges they face.

Eye-Opening Experience

I have been volunteering for CTC at their national office two days a week and after exactly one month, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity of helping out at the CTC-Cyclenation Annual Campaigners’ Conference, hosted by the Merseyside Cycling Campaign. Having nothing to compare it to, as I have neither been involved in campaigning nor attended a conference on cycling before, it was a tremendous insight. I was fascinated to witness the amount of time, effort and organisation put in by passionate individuals committed to improving cycling in their local area, as well as the sheer scale and complexity of their task. There are so many strands and interest groups under the cycling umbrella - and, although they are all aiming to achieve the same goal, - as some of the delegates themselves pointed out - they don’t always pull in the same direction.

This may be an inevitable slight downside to the many positives of cycling, purely because there are so many aspects and advantages associated with the activity. It really can appeal to everybody and you are therefore going to get differing opinions on what is the best way to promote its increased uptake and growth. Whilst cycling is a sport for some, it is an essential lifeline to the outside world for some people and solely a means of transport for others. As Iain Tierney pointed out in the breakout session ‘Cycling and Public Health’, cycling is a ‘product’ to use as a social ‘tool’ - much like the creation of a youth or community centre would be. For the rest of us I suspect, it is a combination of the above – or even all of them at the same time!

I find this universal appeal incredibly encouraging, as of course the more people who cycle and the more diverse their backgrounds and reasons for cycling, the better.  However, as a result of attending the conference, I saw how this could make it even more difficult to have a joined-up approach. How do you successfully ensure that all these different voices, all equally important, are heard by the right people, whilst avoiding the pitfall of diluting the overall message? And who exactly are ‘the right people’ anyway?!

The Art of Effective Campaigning

One of the last presentations of the day, by Matt Turner, tackled this issue head on. He pointed out that in order to turn ‘an underlying problem’ into a motivated and successful campaign, the potentially complex issues and causes are sometimes necessarily simplified and distilled into a simple message. This obviously doesn’t leave too much room for nuance. It is natural, and effective, to concentrate just on the issues at the top of the agenda for a particular group. Otherwise, if the focus is on all aspects of cycling (health, social, economic etc.) the message, and most significantly, the action, could be blunted.

Roger Geffen expanded upon this theme in his presentation ‘Cycling and the Political Landscape'. Once the campaign groups have agreed upon the purpose and most effective implementation of a campaign, they need to focus on who they are trying to influence. This can be anybody from local residents, including any associations and interest groups in the area, to councillors and local authorities, as well as local and national MPs. For larger campaigns, government bodies, All-Party Parliamentary Groups, Steering Committees and even Cabinet Ministers need to be targeted to ensure ‘cycle proofing’ and the Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy for instance, is properly implemented and funded.

Cycling Infrastructure

Being a passionate A to B cyclist (and ‘sporty’ road racer/mountain biker at times), my own view on the subject of cycling is to favour investment in infrastructure. Although, as Robin Heydon, Chair of Cyclenation pointed out, the infrastructure should not be designed for me (a MAMIL, although, as I’m not quite 40 yet, can I rather be known as just a ‘MIL’?!) - it actually needs to be designed for the most vulnerable and inexperienced of users, who are unaware of ‘Bikeability’ and who certainly don’t know what the different levels 1, 2 and 3 mean. In my day, it was known as ‘Cycling Proficiency’ – OK, maybe I am hitting middle age!

This is no doubt vital training but surely the roads and spaces for cyclists need to be safe for untrained and learning cyclists, as they need to be able to cycle in confidence out in the real world, not in a classroom, or manufactured case study setting. In addition, the very best infrastructure should be intuitive, a point which Brian Deegan, Principal Technical Specialist at TfL, illustrated during his presentation. I thought the fact that a TfL representative was so keen to showcase the work they are doing in this area was a reassuringly impressive indication of the political will that these campaign groups have managed to generate. It also demonstrates the seriousness with which decision makers and implementing bodies take our calls for improved provision for all cyclists.

Increasing Inclusive Cycling

If the most vulnerable or inexperienced cyclist can feel safe, empowered and that they have a right to cycle – then we all can."

Oliver de Barra, CTC Volunteer

It was also a real eye-opener for me to hear from Isabelle Clement, who pointed out that not all cyclists are on two wheels. They could just as easily be on three or four. Therefore, infrastructure, which, as she drolly pointed out, not only currently assumes all cyclists can levitate from cycle lane to cycle lane, but equally erroneously assumes that all cyclists can get off and carry their cycles over bridges, or up and down steps and kerbs and so on. This is a key issue as it ties into helping to promote the uptake of cycling to those people who traditionally may have thought that cycling ‘is not for me’, or ‘I can’t do it’ – whereas in reality, they can. It’s ‘simply’ a matter of confidence, opportunity and providing a suitable and safe environment. This could and should be a common cause, as if the most vulnerable or inexperienced cyclist can feel safe, empowered and that they have a right to cycle – then we all can.

As someone who is incredibly passionate about dedicating myself to helping improve the conditions for all cyclists, it is a conundrum as to the best way of setting about trying to achieve this common cause. When you think about it, this is completely natural, as it is such a huge thing to change the roads and spaces around us, as they are owned by all of us – and all with vying priorities (and limited budgets.) To engender the change most of us desire, it is not enough for individual cyclists to have enthusiasm. The mammoth task the campaigners have is remarkably complex. They first need to find these individuals, harness and tap into their passion, then bring them together with others to find the common causes, without disillusioning or disenfranchising anybody in the group. They then need to bring that succinct message as a compelling call to action to decision-makers – once they’ve found a way to get in front of them and to get them to listen!

CTC understandably offers a lot of support and guidance in this area. A whole section of our website is dedicated to making it easy for people to get involved and make a difference on issues that are close to their heart. You can also find out about progress on existing local and national campaigns, as well as joining them - or even becoming a local campaigner yourself. This way, CTC co-ordinates all of your efforts and lends its considerable weight, know-how and organisational skills to matters which are important to you, wherever you are in the country, to give you the best chance of success.

Finally, it is obviously a very human thing to let the status quo continue until it becomes a harder, more unpopular (or evidentially a more dangerous!) option to do nothing – and this requires effective, considered and unrelenting pressure – something that the Federation of Cycling Campaigns up and down the country are doing every day – and I wish them all every continued success in this most important of aims.

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