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Talkin’ Bout a Velorution

Bristol, we need to talk....

Bristol, we need to talk....

This interview appeared today in Venue Magazine, Bristol and Bath’s Weekly Magazine.  Since they don’t post their content online, I am posting it here.

Joshua Hart: Talking ‘Bout a Velorution

Interview Darryl W Bullock

Joshua Hart arrived in Bristol two years ago, travelling from San Francisco by train and cargo ship rather than flying. He has just completed a Masters in Transport Planning at UWE, where his research showed that residents on streets with heavy car traffic have less than one quarter the number of local friends as those on a nearby quiet street.

Q: Why don’t people talk to their neighbours anymore?

A: Many residential streets have become inhospitable; you’re choked by fumes, the roar of traffic drowns out conversation, and children can’t play safely. If you don’t spend time on the street you don’t meet your neighbours. We are so terrified of our kids being run down that we drive them around, keep them inside the house or in the back garden. This has serious health impacts: we are the most obese, inactive generation ever.

Q: Why have cars become such a threat to our neighbourhoods?

A: The number of cars in the UK has increased more than 1000% since 1950; this has had a major impact on our quality of life, our communities and our social lives. For many of us cars might seem essential, but their side effects are proving to be more harmful than smoking. Social norms change though – one day driving a car in the city may be like lighting a cigarette in a pub.

Q: Just how many vehicles use Muller Road (the heavy traffic street in the study) each day?

A: Over 20,000, and residents expressed a great deal of frustration with the environment that results. One couple have a 4-year old girl suffering from upper respiratory disease, and they are desperately trying to move her to a healthier environment. Several people have been killed or injured on the street in recent years. If current transport policies continue, more and more residential streets will become like Muller Road. Simply put, we cannot all expect to drive everywhere and still have a livable city.

Bristolians are increasingly frustrated with transport, both the side-effects of traffic and the lack of viable alternatives. Many feel that the Council is failing to address this crisis.  Indeed, they seem to be heading in the wrong direction: removing cycle lanes on Lower Ashley Rd and threatening the Bristol-Bath Path, the flagship of sustainable Bristol travel.  If they’re serious about a Cycling City, they’ll have to do better than this.

Q: The research is based on a previous study conducted in San Francisco. How do Bristol streets compare with those back home?

A: Bristol and San Francisco are both beautiful cities, but many of their best bits are being spoiled by traffic. Over 100,000 Bristolians live in areas where air pollution fails to meet government health standards. Average rush hour speed is 16mph, the slowest in the UK, with more of us than ever sitting in traffic growing obese, wasting fuel, and spewing carbon into our atmosphere. Another 5.7 million cars are expected on UK roads by 2031.  It has got to stop.

Q: Is there any hope for the future?

A: Holland was in a similar situation in the 1970’s; traffic was increasing, children were being killed and injured, communities were being torn apart and pollution was unbearable. People demanded change and cities were re-designed to prioritise public transport, walking and cycling. Many residential streets in Holland have become home zones where cars are allowed, but pedestrians have priority. When I went to Groningen last spring, families were cycling around the city centre.   It was quiet, people were socialising, and the air was clean.  The word that comes to mind is civilised.  Why can’t Bristol be like that?

Q: What can ordinary people do about this?

A: People can drive less, walk and cycle more. You see the city in a different way when you ride a bike. I challenge everyone who doesn’t cycle yet to get hold of a decent bike, pump up the tires and head out on the cycle path.  It really is so much fun! We could have a whole network of continuous, high-quality cycle expressways throughout Bristol if we wanted it.   People can also talk to their neighbours about having a street party or getting a home zone in their street, and write to their MP and Councillors to support a 20mph limit in residential areas.

Ffi: www.tinyurl.com/6329rz or www.onthelevelblog.com or contact Josh at velorution@yahoo.com

No Friends? Blame the Traffic….

"Our 4-year old girl has a constant cough and we limit the amount of time she spends outside" -Lee, and daughter Trinity, Muller Rd. (20,000 cars/ day)

"Our 4-year-old girl has a constant cough and we limit the amount of time she spends outside...we're constantly breathing in pollution" -father on Muller Rd. (HEAVY Street - 20,000 vehicles/ day)

I’ve got to say- even I was startled by the degree to which car traffic is degrading ordinary people’s lives.  I interviewed 60 households on three north Bristol streets for my Masters dissertation- a replication of the famous Appleyard study, and it’s really true that cars are wrecking people’s health, quality of life, and social lives, not to mention the atmosphere of our entire planet.  I’ve worked on this project over the past year, and I’ve been itching to write about it on my blog, but I wanted to wait until it made a splash in the media.  The research, Driven to Excess: Impacts of Motor Vehicle Traffic on Quality of Life in Bristol UK, is available for download at here.

I hope all this publicity will bring more attention to the incredible work of Professor Donald Appleyard who carried out the original study on traffic’s impact on neighbourhood interaction in San Francisco.   Funnily enough, he was an Englishman who went to San Francisco to do his study, and I am a San Franciscan who returned to England to re-do his study nearly 40 years later.  Knock on wood I don’t meet the same fate (he was killed by a car, tragically).

Here was the press release that went out:

University of the West of England Press Release
19 September 2008

No Friends?  Blame the Traffic
New research shows that friendships on busy streets are cut by more than 75 percent

People living on streets with heavy motor vehicle traffic are experiencing a considerable deterioration of their local social lives according to Joshua Hart, a researcher from the University of the West of England.  Results suggest that residents on busy streets have less than one quarter the number of local friends compared to those living on similar streets with little traffic.

Diagram showing social deterioration on three Bristol streets- lines represent friendships and acquaintances

Diagram showing social deterioration on three Bristol streets- lines represent friendships and acquaintances

The study looked at three streets in north Bristol with light, medium and heavy traffic respectively. It found that motor traffic, which has grown more than tenfold in the UK since 19501, has a considerable negative impact on quality of life, particularly for residents living beside heavy motor traffic flows.  “Traffic is like a mountain range, cutting you off” said one man on the heavy traffic street, Muller Road, where over 20,000 cars drive by his house every day.

Interviews with residents indicate that growing motor traffic has forced people to make major adjustments in their lives, to shield against the nearly constant noise, pollution, dust and danger outside their front doors. Many residents revealed that they experience sleep disturbances, no longer spend time in the front of their homes, and curtail the independence of their children in response to motor traffic. “Our 4-year-old girl has a constant cough and we limit the amount of time she spends outside…we’re constantly breathing in pollution,” said one father.

This research, carried out as part of a Transport Planning MSc, confirms for the first time in the UK the results of a 1969 San Francisco study by Professor Donald Appleyard2, who also found deterioration of community on busy streets.

With an additional 5.7 million cars expected on the UK’s roads by 2031 (a growth of 21%)3, these findings point to an urgent need for the Government to provide healthy residential environments and stem traffic growth by investing in public transport, walking and cycling in order to avoid many more local communities being impacted. Joshua Hart concludes, “This study shows that the deterioration of neighbouring in this country may well be down to our own travel habits.  We created this problem, and now we have a responsibility to solve it.”

For a list of media outlets who covered this study, see the Driven to Excess Media Page.

A Tasty Recipe for Climate Action

Normally it’s easy to carry on screwing the climate if you are a profit driven corporation or a corrupt western government. Simply take one soulless public relations firm, stir in words like “sustainable,” “efficient,” and “clean,” pour about 1000 times the amount of money into advertising your “green” initiatives as actually doing them. Then combine with a mainstream media pre-marinated in obedience and regularly tasted by a less-than-attentive public and PRESTO- you have made a nice tidy profit-er-ole, baked to perfection in the oven of a warming planet.

E.On, the German energy giant who wants to build a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth in Kent has tried really hard to follow this recipe, to ensure that its’ shareholders have a nice big tasty income sandwich to feast on at the end of every quarter.

Kingsnorth Coal Fired Power Plant Looms in the background as tents of resistence spring up all around

However, this year, with momentum building for taking action on climate change, and stronger scientific evidence coming in every week that we must arrest our carbon emissions, E.On was worried. The Camp for Climate Action, a growing movement that started three years ago with a camp outside Drax coal burning power plant, and last year had a high profile presence outside of Heathrow, decided to turn its attention to Kingsnorth, which is the first of seven proposed new coal fired power stations in the UK.

I mean, the government does have a point- how else are we supposed to power all those old, inefficient lightbulbs, standby buttons, and mind-numbing electronic toys shipped from China? Who cares about the flooding of cities in the future when there are tasty profits to be had today?

E.on was so worried about the camp, that they spent £12 million on new security to protect their little moneymaker. Their defences included a field of bulls, 12-foot high barbed steel fence, a moat, a second heavy duty mesh steel fence, and behind that, a rather evil looking fence with 10,000 volts of electricity (I guess they have a good supply of that particular commodity).

Low flying police helicopters were used for intimidation, possible intelligence gathering, and mainly to interrupt our sleep

Low flying police helicopters were used for intimidation, possible intelligence gathering, but mainly to interrupt our sleep

Operation “Oasis” was also over the top, with at least £3 million spent on policing the camp. The operation was military in nature, and used at least 4 helicopters, 1500 police from 26 agencies all over England and Wales, and a modular aircraft hangar used to search every single person entering and leaving the camp. Quite an apt name, as the camp often felt like an oasis of humanity and community in the desert of police intimidation.

The Met sent reinforcements from London

The Met sent reinforcements from London

Whatever you want to say about that, the rising tide of resistance (of which climate camp is the most visible part) is clearly perceived as a growing threat to a system that continues to place profit above human and ecological well-being.

Your blogger has just come back from spending a week at the frontlines at Climate Camp, and I have returned inspired at our collective power and also daunted by the forces arrayed against those wanting true climate justice.

Operation "Oasis" in full swing

Operation "Oasis" in full swing

I cycled from London to the hillside site in Kent last Sunday with about 30 others. Led by Bicycology’s mobile sound system, we took the lane where necessary along the 40 mile journey. We filled a couple of trash bags with litter at our lunch stop in a local cemetery, which won the locals onto our side and even seemed to impress our police escort.

Upon our arrival, after being searched by the bobbies (the first of dozens), and our D-locks having been confiscated, we entered the camp. The large field was abuzz with activity. It was surrounded by woods and orchards, and overlooked the reason we were there- E.On’s large smokestack, two miles away. We quickly got to work helping to set up the camp- together with others from Westside (the camp was organised into geographically based neighbourhoods) we built a table for the kitchen, brought supplies in via wheelie-bin, and helped to set up gatewatch and cooking rotas.

We waited an hour for our empty wheelie bins to be searched...

We waited an hour for our empty wheelie bins to be searched...

Because most everyone pitched in to do what needed to be done, there was a feeling of common responsibility in the running of the camp. All decisions were reached through an inclusive, consensus based process. It was this- more than the day of action, more than the heavy police presence, which defined the camp for me- gave it its power. If a group of 2000 concerned citizens can come together for ten days in a field, demonstrate sustainable living carried out without the burden of authoritarian structure, all while under siege from an increasingly militaristic police force, you know this is a movement that will continue to grow and thrive. Once people get a taste of what is possible, it’s hard to turn back.

Life in the Westside....

Life on the Westside....

So, after a couple of days at the camp, I decided I needed to take a closer look at the power plant- this coalfire belching dragon that released the same annual emissions as Ghana.

Together with a friend, I rode down to the River Medway, then followed the sea wall, where we were stopped and searched by Kent Police, and told we were okay to stick to the path. We arrived at the power station, and took a few photos, in order to document the plant for this blog, and to peacefully and legally express our protest.

Minutes after this photo was taken I was arrested outside Kingsnorth

Minutes after this photo was taken your blogger was arrested outside Kingsnorth Coal Fired Plant

About ten minutes later, we were stopped by about 10 Manchester Police in an aggressive mood, who searched us thoroughly, found a cash card that a friend had given me to withdraw cash for her, and gleefully declared that I was under arrest for suspicion of a stolen credit card. We were also both arrested under suspicion of conspiracy to cause criminal damage, apparently simply for taking photos.

Our keepers kept us waiting in the hot afternoon sun for over two hours while “waiting for transport,” repeatedly refused to allow us to drink the water we had with us because they “didn’t know what it was” and denied us access to a toilet, both for 3 hours.

The transport finally arrived, and we were driven to the police’s own “climate camp” across the main road. While waiting in the back of a police van in handcuffs within their compound, I heard repeated spine-chilling screams and yelling. I tried to position myself to see who was being tortured- that’s unfortunately the conclusion the mind jumps to these days of Abu Gharib and Guantanamo…..but I couldn’t see anything, and the screams just kept coming. As we pulled out of the compound I saw about 6 or 7 off duty policemen playing a game of baseball, when one of them hit a home run their team screamed- that explained the “torture.” Bloody hell….

We were sent to Medway Police Station, interviewed, fingerprinted, photographed, and our DNA taken (yes that’s right our DNA) and held until 4am, when, after work from our solicitors, we were released without charge. They told us they “couldn’t find our bikes” and when I came to collect mine 4 days later, both tires had been flattened, a pool of water collected in the bottom of my panniers, with rust all over the bike- it was clear it had been left out all night. So much for facilitating peaceful protest….

<enough about the cops>

On Friday, there was sunshine, and the camp was humming along- hundreds of new arrivals pitching their tents and getting acquainted with camp life. A cricket game was being played by the Wales neighbourhood, and (happy) exclamations could be heard from participants and spectators. Workshops were being held discussing the pros and cons of carbon capture and storage, DJ’s were spinning pedal powered beats in the bicycology tent, pizzas were being baked in an earthen oven in the Wales neighbourhood, and everything seemed remarkably calm and normal, despite the siege all around us. The camp had found its groove, the calm before the storm, and everyone was relishing the moment.

The day of action on Saturday saw dozens of rebel pirates on rafts float down the river, disrupting the water intake of the plant, and hanging banners on the jetty, a mass march and occupation of the front gates. A couple of dozen protesters managed to gain access to the plant, using police barriers to “pole vault” over the high security fencing.

Using their defenses against them...
E.On F. Off: Using their defenses against them…

For every rebel raft that was caught by the police boats, another made it close to the station- police were criticised by the coast guard for confiscating life jackets from the camp...

For every rebel raft that was caught by the police boats, another made it close to the station- police were criticised by the coast guard for confiscating life jackets from the camp...

The weary protesters returned to camp for a celebratory night with hundreds dancing to a wicked DJ under the main marquee, with photos of the week projected onto the ceiling. Meanwhile, hundreds of others were getting their turn to eat bad microwaved jail food in their cells across the river….

There are climate camps sprouting up all over the world, so get involved with your local one- if we wait for governments and corporations to act on climate change, it will be too late. They are saying we only have 100 months to avoid runaway climate change, a blink of an eye really…

No need to wait until next August to take direct action though. Rising Tide is one of the many groups who will carry forward the momentum generated at Kingsnorth. Together we can take the corporate profit-er-ole out of the oven of climate destruction (it’s not very healthy for us anyway) and cook up a tasty dish of strengthened community, resistance, and a just (and fun) transition to a low carbon world.

Won’t you join us for supper? There’s plenty to go around…

some pics courtesy climate camp

Flightless: Incredible Journeys Without Leaving the Ground

As of today, August 1st, I’m excited to announce that your blogger has officially been published in Lonely Planet’s new anthology, Flightless: Incredible Journeys Without Leaving the Ground. I tried to convince them to call it FlightFREE, but they insisted on FlightLESS which I think makes the book sound a bit like a dodo, rather than an inspirational collection of stories of people who have been liberated from commercial aviation, but I digress.

I haven’t read the book yet (other than my own entry) but I’ve read a couple of the stories and they’re worth a read. You can buy the book at better book shops in the US, UK, and Australia, or online here.

Funnily enough, the Flight Centre is carrying the book. How’s that for irony? Anyway, you can read the full, unedited, collection of blog entries from my transatlantic, FlightFREE voyage here, and I will soon get around to posting the edited version.  Check it out and let me know what you think.

Bicycle History, Bicycle Future


There were a few silver linings around the dark cloud of disappointment that had gathered after it became clear that my right knee didn’t share my ambitious tramping plans. One was my discovery of the Museum of Bicycle History in Camelford, an eccentric and wonderful collection of bicycles and memorabilia, housed in a former railway station, a fascinating example of rail infrastructure recycled into contemporary bicycle use.

I was on the Western Greyhound bus to Tintagel, where locals claim that the nearby castle ruins are those of Arthurian legend (though which now are used to lure tourists and sell cheap plastic swords in stones). After making a turn at the crossroads, I noticed several signs along the road: “Bicycle History Museum,” “Museum of Bicycle History,” and “ BICYCLE MUSEUM.”

Ding ding ding DING DING DING!!!! I rang the stop request bell and begged the driver to stop and let me out, and he obliged. The existence of this museum was a complete surprise to me, and I was thrilled that I had stumbled upon it. The museum is run by a older couple, John and Sue Middleton, who opened their collection of over 400 bicycles to the public in 1992 in the old railway depot at Camelford, a station left rail-less by the Beeching cuts in the 1960’s when the UK’s rail network was slashed mercilessly by shortsighted bureaucrats and the auto lobby.

Like a kid in a candy store, I spent the whole morning looking around the museum, and chatting with Sue about their amazing collection, and going through their library of cycling manuals, bicycles, and cycle clothing catalogs.


There are some remarkable bikes in the museum, including a von Drais velocipede hobby-horse from 1816- the precursor to the modern bicycle. A vast collection of accessories, oil lamps, clothing, books, signs and posters gives a real flavour of the history of the bicycle in Britain. In the background, historic bicycle songs played on a loop, like “a bicycle built for two” and Queen’s anthem “Bicycle race.”

There was something sad about the museum too. I was one of only three visitors the whole morning, even though hundreds of cars drove by the entrance. The whole place smelled of mildew, and it was obvious that a good part of the collection was threatened by leaks in the roof. Many of the items are irreplaceable- a critical cultural link to a past where quality was valued over quantity- where enjoyment of the journey was a superior aspiration than arriving in the shortest time possible.

Though Sue and John have kept the museum alive with a love of bicycle culture and history, as well as a good amount of their own money and time, this is a resource that ultimately needs to be supported by the government or foundations, or it will wither as surely as the railway network that has provided its home.

Compared with the gleaming brand new glitzy Transport Museum in London, the Bicycle Museum was run down, neglected, and almost forgotten, despite the best efforts of its owners. A reflection of current transport policy and how cycling has been rejected by successive governments influenced by the road lobby, the museum now requires an influx of cash to preserve the collection and ensure its future. This is a jewel in the rough whose time has come to be polished and promoted. If you know anyone with a large trust fund who is enamoured of bicycle culture, there is a great opportunity here. They could also use a volunteer web designer and webmaster, and a marketing specialist (at the very least to sort out a consistent name and logo).

A beautiful and lush garden has been planted where the platforms and the rails once stood- where, prior to the vicious Beeching cuts, travellers said their tearful goodbyes and young Cornish men departed for two world wars, some of them for the last time. The right of way has been largely lost, which is unfortunate for all of us- but particularly a loss for the local community who could now be benefiting from the visitors that the nearby Camel Trail (built on the same abandoned branch line) attracts.

Continuous and integral
rights-of-way are so crucial to transport systems- they are like humpty dumpty- once one building has been erected the whole line loses value. Thanks to the railbanking law in the states, there is a framework to preserve abandoned rail lines for non-motorised or future rail use. In sixties Britain, there was no such law and often valuable and irreplaceable level, direct rights-of-way became part of adjacent gardens, new housing developments or- god forbid- car parks.

Like the train, the bicycle has been neglected by the dominance of the automobile. However, while the main rail lines in the UK have been recording increasing ridership as frustrated drivers flee the congested roads, the increase in cars has intimidated all but the bravest souls from cycling for transport, a habit that has been decreasing in most places outside of London.

The museum was like a phantom, an eerie reminder of the historic partnership between rail and pedal. While I ate lunch, a future vision hovered over the sunny garden: tourists coming from all over the UK by train and by bike using a revitalised national cycle/rail network- as complete and maintained as the roads, a rebirth of community and good health, and a departure from corporate dominance of transport policy and addiction to vehicles that make you fat, weak, and unhappy.

Like faithful friends who watch over you knowingly as you throw your life away on cheap excesses, the bicycle and the train wait patiently in the wings for humanity to re-discover what we have forsaken in the rush to mufflers, asphalt, broken glass and petrol. In the crisis to come, there will be a second bicycle renaissance, and then we’ll be glad for the Middletons and their glorious obsession with all things bicycle.

Next Post: in which Josh discovers the Bicycle History Museum’s Gift Shop, cruises to the Camelford ATM on a borrowed Schwinn girl’s bike with ape bars, and rapes his bank account to fund his own obsession with bicycle history….

Photos courtesy http://kimbofo.typepad.com/ and http://www.bbc.co.uk/cornwall/uncovered/bikegallery.shtml

Tramping Cornwall

“Hey Tom, you wanna go tramping along the Cornish Coast in May?”
“Yeah that sounds great. I should really be working, but hey I’ve been wanting to do that for ages. Count me in!”

Thus began our ten-day adventure in Cornwall. Our goal was to hike 110 miles or so, from Penzance, around the Southwest tip of Cornwall (Land’s End) up to Devon, and take the train back from Barnstaple in Devon.

Tramping of course has a double meaning:

1. Verb: to walk through or over a place wearily or reluctantly and for long distances : we have tramped miles over mountain and moorland

2. Noun: a person who travels from place to place on foot in search of work or as a vagrant or beggar

We fancied ourselves tramps in the romantic hobo-ish train-hopping independent traveller damn-the-itinerary kind of way. We were definitely weary- even reluctant at times, especially when my right knee began to give me problems after the third day. I was afraid I was going to have to give up and go home (and I would have if we were in the states) but thank the lord there was a frequent and convenient rural bus that ran along the coast, and I was able to meet Tom at a designated camping spot every night. It was actually a mixed blessing, allowing me more leisure time to meet the locals, and discover hidden jewels like the Bicycle History Museum in Camelford (stay tuned).

Were we really tramps, or just yuppies seeking a return to the land? Jury’s still out on that one. We weren’t looking for work. I didn’t beg until I was caught in Boscastle on a stormy Saturday night all alone with the hostel full up, and my dilemma prompted a kind café manager to put me up in her house. There was an air of vagrancy about our trip, though.

escargot dining on sea beet

Neither of us brought a tent or a sleeping pad, preferring to rough it with just a couple of tarps. I somehow managed with only a daypack. We slept out on the cliffs or in caves, and bathed in the cold Atlantic waters.

We tried to live off the land, using “Food for Free” to supplement our meals with ramson’s (wild garlic), nettles (rich in protein and iron), and sea beet (a lot like spinach). We talked about bagging a bunny, but neither of us had the heart.

We laughed about how few differences there actually are between “backpacking” and “vagrancy”- perhaps more than most outdoor enthusiasts would care to admit. A few name-brand gore-tex items and a credit card- that’s about it.

As they say, the best things in life are free, and we relished the freedom and the immediacy of gathering our food, choosing a protected place to camp, and falling asleep with the sound of the waves each night, and feeling the sand in between our toes the next morning when we went for a swim. No one was charging us hefty fees, we didn’t have to sell our souls to the man to afford the trip. We weren’t in luxurious comfort every moment, but we were rewarded by a rare intimacy with the natural world. The spectacular North Cornish coast in late spring- wildflowers, ferns, and wild fuschias bursting forth, and very few tourists.

Just a couple of tramps eating rice and wild sea beet, watching the sun set over the Atlantic, and contented living the simple life.


pics courtesy T. Beale

Bike Culture Through the Lens of Ted White

Many of you who read this blog will already have come across these films, but for those who haven’t- I’ve posted them here. It continues to surprise me the number of people I come across- especially in the UK- who think that Critical Mass is sort of this bike nazi movement- a group of radical cyclists with molotov cocktails in their bike bottle cages. The truth is that Critical Mass is a peaceful, participatory celebration that effectively questions the role of public space in cities. Most simply, it is a bunch of people getting together for a safe bicycle ride through the city. If that’s “radical” in the context of the norm that is the violent, toxic, and carbon-heavy transport system of today, I am proud to be called a radical.

Ted White has captured, perhaps better than any other filmmaker, the zeitgeist of the velorution that started in San Francisco in 1992, when Critical Mass was born to the world. In fact, the term (as it applies to bicycles) was coined by George Bliss in the film Return of the Scorcher (the first one below). Referring to cyclists waiting at a junction in China:

“the cyclists would….wait….until they had enough numbers to force their way through the cars and make them stop.”

Return of the Scorcher 1992 Ted White

Unfortunately, since this footage was taken in China, the country has of course gone in the opposite direction, following the west into ill-fated car dependence, forsaking the simple liberation that the bicycle offered so many Chinese for so long in favour of an obsession with automobility and a self-destructive petrol habit.

We are Traffic, the second film, takes a critical look at the Critical Mass phenomenon that started in San Francisco in 1992, and has spread to hundreds of cities worldwide. Great interviews with luminaries of the SF bicycle movement: Beth Verdekal, Chris Carlsson, Joel Pomerantz, Dave Snyder, and others. There is a great analysis of the 1997 “bicycle riot” in San Francisco, and the dreams, philosophy, and excitement that characterize the  rides.

Thanks to Jon Winston and his excellent Bikescape blog and podcast for pointing out that these classics from the San Francisco bicycle movement are now online.

We are Traffic 1999 Ted White

Critical Mass rides typically happen the last Friday of the month starting at 6pm.   In London, meet at the south end of Waterloo Bridge by the Film Institute.   In San Francisco, it starts from Justin Hermann Plaza at the foot of Market St.   In Bristol, it starts at the Fountains in the Centre.   If you don’t live in one of these cities, check here for your local ride.

Spring: High Time for Bikepacking


For a Californian who isn’t used to experiencing real seasons, spring in the UK is a wonderful time. Six long months of dull, overcast skies and seemingly lifeless trees and bare muddy ground- in the space of two weeks- yield to a sudden explosion of green lush fecundity- this year fueled by the warm and wet weather. Perhaps a result of climate change, it is nevertheless quite welcome after the bone chill of winter. Summer is right around the corner and the time is right for planning adventures and holidays. What’s that you say? Short of cash and concerned about the impact of your getaways on the environment? Don’t just sit home and mope- the time is ripe for bikepacking.

Bikepacking is a term coined by one of my heroes, Ken Kifer, a prolific writer and bikepacker based in Alabama. It’s a kind of a hybrid between backpacking and cycling, a particular breed of cycle touring where the rider is self sufficient, and independent of RV (caravan) parks, motels, and campgrounds. Find a field, or a spot in a forest, pitch your tent, prepare your evening meal, and enjoy. Of course, bikepacking requires a basic set of equipment, but once you have it, you are ready to go! There’s something so rewarding about cycling along the open road with everything you need, able to stop when you get tired, go to sleep when the sun sets, and rise when it does- as Sustrans says- bypass the bypass!

Last Friday, having finally submitted my dissertation, I needed to get out of the city, get some exercise and fresh air, and get back on my bike. I also wanted to see friends back in Bristol, so I decided to ride along the Kennet and Avon canal between Reading and Bristol, about 110 miles pedaled over three days, following this beautiful waterway through town centres, rural farming communities, tree lined banks with swans swimming gracefully, and the colorful narrowboats that are so quintessentially English. I camped in fields and forests, picnicked on benches along the way, drank pints of local ale in sunny pub gardens fronting the water, and followed the entire length of the canal, even when the official cycle route 4 diverted onto roads. I wasn’t going to be put off by directional signs based more on deals made with British Waterways, than on the actual suitability of the route. From my years working at Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, I can smell political compromise a mile away. The anglers and walkers didn’t seem to mind me cycling, though, as long as I was polite and used my bell.

The canal is a rare find, a state of mind far from the motorway grind and laughing in the face of the speed imperative of industrial society. Ironic then, that the canal network was the first transport system of the industrial revolution, built in the 1810’s to transport coal and other goods. On the canal, you can go as fast or as slow as you want- you can stop when you like, and if you have a houseboat or an equipped bikepack, your house is always with you. The towpaths make this kind of travel accessible to practically everyone- the ultimate way out of the city into the countryside. On the level, the bicycle- pure of heart and healthy for the lungs- reigns supreme.

The ultimate populist travel mode, independent of petrol prices and road congestion- no wonder Sustrans has had notable successes in their project of building a national cycle network- it’s the dream and the growing desire for continuous, safe, and enjoyable routes for human beings- what could be a more basic need, and yet one that has been sadly neglected by our growing addiction to cars.

The Kennet and Avon, though well surfaced in many sections, in parts is muddy, rocky, and difficult (though not impossible) to pedal. For the cost of a few metres of motorway, the whole 120 miles of canal between London and Bristol could be surfaced with all weather crushed stone, easy and pleasant for even your grandmother to pedal. Put in a campground every twenty miles with basic facilities of water and pit toilets, and suddenly you have a carbon neutral, healthy, and equitable means for urbanites to holiday away from the pollution and danger, and experience a bit of nature, a connection that has been denied to so many these days.

Though Ken Kifer was tragically killed by a drunk driver in a pickup in Alabama several years back, his website is still active and is, though cheesy at times, is a great resource for bikepackers. His murder by petrol and cheap beer should not depress us but inspire the spread of bikepacking to the masses, and make it one element of our transport related carbon reduction policies. It’s great that Sustrans is focusing on urban cycling routes, but they should not neglect the potential of a true national cycle network, following canals, and active and abandoned railways, to connect cities and towns throughout the UK, a quality network that is safe for young children and old people, a role that on-road routes will never fill, as long as there is the threat of Jeremy Clarkson rounding the bend at 80mph. We need to finish what we started and remember the original vision of CYCLEBAG- a continuous off road pathway network. Cycling is worth it!

At a time when most of the alternative methods of holidaying involve further damage to our climate, the time is ripe for packing up the saddlebags, calling in sick to your desk job, and pedaling into a better future where transport adds to community and quality of life, not detracts from it.

Protest Flashmob and Bad Karma hit new British Airways Terminal

Heathrow’s new terminal 5 opened on thursday, an event that British Airways and BAA hoped would provide a pr boost for further airport expansion. Instead, what has transpired is a “dreadful national embarrassment” of cancelled flights, baggage delays, and a gleaming new terminal that doesn’t seem to work. And all this aside from a mass flash mob protest against a third runway with several hundred people occupying the arrivals hall. Plane Stupid says that the airport was “so busy worrying about (the flash mob) that they forgot to hire any baggage handlers…” The Guardian says that “flights to Manchester, Paris, Brussels, Newcastle and Edinburgh were among those cancelled at Heathrow….it would be no bad thing if they never resumed.” Hear hear.

As for myself, I donned a red t-shirt, went along to add my voice to hundreds of others at the protest, and hung around for a couple of hours, having loud conversations about climate change and aviation in the coffee lounge (where the baristas were so supportive I even got an employee discount!!). I confronted some BAA directors after they were interviewed about the baggage delays asking them how they could live with themselves for promoting continued expansion in the face of climate change. They told me “the economic case has been made for ‘sustainable’ growth in the aviation industry.” I asked them how many pounds the life of a Bangladeshi family was worth. They didn’t seem to have a soundbite to respond to that one.

I gave my own soundbite to a couple of MSN reporters, who used my interview as part of their feature on the t5 opening. You must also check out the old ladies up in arms about the third runway, from CNN. Click on the “mob protests airport expansion link.”

With any luck, this debacle will make the government question the wisdom of allowing corporations like BA and BAA to dictate national transport policy. Gear up for the next protest on May 31st against Heathrow expansion, and the climate camp, which will consist of a huge caravan from Heathrow to Kings North to protest plans for the first new British coal fired power station in 23 years.

It’s Up to Old Blighty

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Two weeks ago, the NASA scientist James Hansen released a statement calling upon the UK and Germany to reject planned coal fired power plants as these countries have a “historic responsibility” to combat climate change. According to his calculations, the UK has the highest per capita contribution to CO2 emissions already in the atmosphere (as you can see in the chart above).

That’s right Britons- especially rich Britons- are you paying attention? We are responsible for more excess carbon molecules in the air than the US or China or India or anyone else on the planet. We started this mess with the Manchester factories of the industrial revolution, and their mechanized mass production based on coal, and some of us have become extraordinarily- almost ridiculously- wealthy in the process. We now have a moral duty to be a world leader in the transition away from fossil fuels- yet we are planning new coal mines like the one in Wales planned to extract 10m tons of coal over the next 17 years, motorway widenings, and a third runway at Heathrow airport. From the capitalist growth economy perspective, there are truly no limits.

If we continue along this path, future generations will not think of the double decker bus, cute red phoneboxes, or the Beatles when they think of the UK- they will think of the worst climate criminals on the face of the planet, too blinded by our own avarice to change our ways- hooking the world on a dirty energy habit, and refusing to cut down ourselves even when serious problems are on the horizon.

This is one possible scenario- and a depressing one surely- but there is another storyline- one of a rapid awakening, a transition to a less consumer oriented culture, renewable energy, local communities and food production, cities where you can breathe again and cycling and walking is prioritized. We can make it happen, but the people have to lead. If the English lead, surely the citizens of other countries will sit up and take notice and want a piece of what we’ve got. And that’s an export we can all live with.