Sunday, May 29, 2011

Air pollution in Sri Lanka - a rant

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Something burning, 24 hours a day.

I need to get something off my chest. Haha. We all do, even if we don't know it yet.

It's hard to know where to start - there are so many things wrong in this picture. But let's start with those chimneys.

Sri Lanka has a few things to sort out, and the air people breathe in Colombo is a good place to start.

Did you know this country has emissions rules? And vehicles get emissions-tested? Hard to believe, when you see the exhaust from the average minivan. I've heard that vehicles sold here constitute "Japan's dumping ground".

This country needs nuclear power. The whole world does. We have to stop burning diesel and all other sorts of lazy polluting fuels, not just for the biosphere but - being purely self interested - for us, for people.

I say nuclear because i think it's the feasible option. Renewables could do the job too if we can get enough of them. Whatever, we need electricity to replace petrol, diesel etc, and we have to get it without burning hydrocarbons. No-one wants to be energy-poor again (people haven't listened to Illich). Fossil fuels have been fantastically cheap, easy energy - just try to cycle at 20mph, then do the same in a car or on a motorbike - and we need to make sure electricity is there to take their place).

I cycled home from Colombo tonight, and my snot is blackened by all the god-knows-what in the air. (I'm almost the fastest thing on the main road, because the traffic is so bad, at standstill mostly, but confident motorbikes - and me - can go up the inside, where the tarmac stops. Dirt surface, no pavements, somehow they can afford 4 or 6 lane highways, but no pavements, it's appalling. Yay for suspension though).

Why do we put up with this? The black stuff in one's snot at the end of the day, i mean. We wouldn't put up with someone pissing all over us, and that might be healthier. Or do rich people who matter just hang out only where the air is clear?

They have some Thorium here, but not the skill or commitment to use it yet. I saw a newspaper headline (one of the english ones) that was effectively "Government rethinking nuclear due to OH NOES NUCLEAR GONE WRONG IN JAPAN". Not v encouraging.

On that subject - the way I see Japan is:

OK, bit silly putting a power plant in earthquake area, and right on the coast. But all of japan fits that description (or is mountains) so they had little choice.

And then, what happened is actually a great ad for how safe nuclear is. Plant runs merrily for decades, then is hit by a R9 earthquake and tsunami, and just about melts. There's time to get out. Some deaths, workers at the plant, which is thankfully mostly automated.

Take any other power plant, most of all coal, and you'd have more deaths over those decades (from massive piles of coal falling on people etc), then more deaths on the day in March. Plus deaths at the coal mine. (I know uranium mines aren't safe either, but they're smaller).

So why the resistance? is it the cognitive bias, to avoid the possibility of "dread" events - rare terrible catastrophes - even if it means being subject to more everyday harms that far outweigh the dread possibility?

Yes, nuclear can be a catastrophe if it goes wrong. But burning fossil fuels is a catastrophe even when it goes right - it's just a fundamental component of doing it. When we grow up, we have to get past our irrational fears - of the dark, of spiders - and it's time we do the same about nuclear.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Cargo bikes, trikes... Why not a trailer?

I’m a medical student, about to be a doctor. I move house annually, I don't have a spare £1000 and have no garage – so a dedicated cargo bike or trike is out of the question.

Last summer, I remember being asked, by a local cyclist of a certain age, “what’s a student doing with a bike trailer”?

However, a simple trailer (one of those £80 jobs) works fantastically for me. At the risk of sounding clich├ęd, it just fits my lifestyle right now.

It cost the same as filling a 4×4’s tank, but it’s lasted me 3 years now, and still going strong.

I do the weekly shop with it. I’ve moved furniture (a butcher’s block) with it. I’ve transported nearly 40kg of commercial espresso machine and grinder with it. I’ve shifted gym weights with it. When my partner arranged a medical student event in Oxford and needed to transport refreshments (crisps, snacks, fruit, and at least 20l of drinks), she took the trailer.

When it’s not being used, it folds up and lives on top of the big freezer in our utility room.

I find it’s quite welcome on the roads – maybe Oxford’s drivers are used to this sort of thing, or maybe the yellow tarp over the top is a help. People tend to give me plenty of room! There’s the odd cycle path that clearly hasn’t thought about people with more than two wheels, but you can manage.

My point is – doing this is entirely normal, not extraordinary. I don’t have room for a car, nor do I feel like spending thousands of pounds, just to move me and my stuff around.

For exactly those same reasons – space, and a lack of a few thousand quid or so – I don’t have a cargo bike (or trike). It’s just not practical.

But a trailer – now that just does the job, and tidies away when it’s not needed. So, why not have one?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Vehicular Cycling, the Right to Ride: who is the CTC for?

I've just read Freewheeler's post, "Lorries killing cyclists: what is to be done?"

This is a great summary of the situation - there's a real sense of energy, and understandable frustration, from his writing, and it really pins down the issues.

I wish I was in the UK at the moment, to help with the good work of the Cycling Embassy. As it is, I'm out of the UK until June - I hope to get involved once I'm back.

I say this as someone who rides a bike, who loves to ride, who feels like the world is a better place when people can get from A to B by bike. That it should be one of the most obvious choices in the world. And that the bicycle, although not the whole solution, is a necessary element in any better world.

I'm also a card-carrying CTC member. To ride a bike in the UK, I've become a "cyclist".

After 6 years of riding the bike, I'm now a fully-fledged vehicular cyclist - out of necessity rather than by choice. With my helmet and my Saturn yellow coat, I can get out there and "share the road", even when other road users aren't too keen to share it with me. My lifestyle has adapted to include VC.

I've had my near misses. One collision, where I was rear-ended by a motorist on a country road. So far, nothing serious, nothing to stop me cycling, or worse.

But VC is a choice, however forced, that I am able to make. Most others, not so young or fit or brave (or foolhardy), can't begin to choose this way of life. And why should they have to? I wouldn't wish VC on my worst enemy, let alone family or friends.

When both my partner and my parents started cycling to work, I felt an immense sense of happiness, joy, even pride. Actions speak louder than words, I thought. I'd set a good example. It wasn't cheery comments, along the lines of "you'd have to cycle for 3000 years, on average, before you'd be hit by a car!" that had made the difference. Instead, all they'd needed was to see that it was possible, and they made the "right" choice for themselves.

Once your loved ones take up cycling, a funny thing happens. They're exposed to the world of crap, the indifference, the utter criminal negligence on the roads that you've been weathering for years. They can drive, they know the rules of the road, yet they're shaken by their experience. They come home and tell you about it.

Suddenly, VC doesn't seem as much of a solution as it did before, when it was only your life on the line. Another day, and another cyclist - someone's sister, or son, or father - is killed while riding their bike. And the world goes on.

I like to think I've done my family a good deed, helping them get on their bikes. The cheery statistics do tell me it's a net benefit to their health. But the thought that they could be next, that VC is putting them at risk every time they're out on their bike, makes me more than a little uneasy.

So, what is the CTC for? Is it for radical change, for everyday cycling, for everyone, and for the conditions to make that happen? If so - why so little mention of The Netherlands, Denmark and the rest? Except to suggest that we can't ever have what they have, and that it'd be wrong even to start, even to try.

The denialism, the head-in-the-sand to what is happening in the UK, is breathtaking. Statistics manipulated, presented in relative terms to inflate the numbers. "50% more cyclists in London", for example. Gaudy saturn yellow press releases on cycle training, lorry driver "awareness", the endless helmet issue etc. And meanwhile, cycling in the UK flatlines.

CTC, LCC, Sustrans - all have collaborated in preserving the status quo.

CTC and LCC - One road for all, shared - but not equally of course. Understandably - it's hard to share with vehicles several orders of magnitude larger or smaller than yours.

Sustrans, of course, has taken a slightly different approach, at best seeking out excellent off-road routes. At worst, they have conspired to tidy cyclists out of sight, out of mind, dumping them onto inadequate towpaths or old railways. These may not be direct, but at least they're scenic.

In the 1950's, the British Medical Association was strongly opposed to the creation of the NHS. Doctors felt the status quo served their interests quite nicely. But the change was not intended to benefit them - it was for everyone else in British society. In time, the BMA realized that medicine was bigger than their members' interests.

The CTC has been protecting its members' interests since its inception. It bitterly opposed the introduction of segregated cycling facilities almost 100 years ago, suggesting that cyclists might lose the "right to ride" on the road.

Over the following century, it backed itself into a corner, still defending that same right. Except that fewer and fewer people want to ride on those roads, such as they are. What works for me, and other cyclists, on a fast Sunday ride or Tuesday evening training session, does not work for the vast majority of the population. "Cyclists" are now a much derided, pitied, ridiculed minority, and most adults never ride a bike.

Does the CTC wish to see this change?

Or will it watch, as its members add Hi-viz to their wardrobes, lights to their helmets, air horns to their bikes, cameras to their handlebars, and decide that it knows which products to review for this year's Xmas Cycle magazine?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Mmm, Infrastructure...

Cycling in Oxford occurs despite, not thanks to, the council. We're a small, 2-University city, so lots of people want to do it, but how do they help?

With infrastructure like this. An undulating lumpy strip of road, sandwiched between a bus lane and people parking up on the pavement. (Oh, and if you have a tricycle - or a pushchair, or a trailer, or a wheelchair, don't bother. You're not welcome here). Given the quality of the surface, it isn't wide enough for one bicycle, never mind passing.

Of course, in this photo I am "going the wrong way" - but I promise you, the other side of the road is worse. No bike lane, no bus lane, just a potholed gutter.

As a "vehicular cyclist", of course, none of this is a problem. I can just "take the lane", "adopt primary position", and all the other survival strategies I use on a daily basis, just to survive cycling in this mess. And this is exactly what I do. (I even have a rather fetching Saturn Yellow jacket to wear on these occasions).

But there's no way I can suggest cycling to friends and family, given these conditions. "It's fun, and fast, and easy" just doesn't ring true when people come up against this. Something which should be relaxing becomes terrifying at times, even to experienced cyclists like me - how on earth can people new to cycling take it?

Fuels prices would need to be a whole lot higher, to get people cycling on paths like this.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Cycle parking solutions - Horwood Close

Space for 6 bikes; more if necessary!

As detailed before, our cul-de-sac has totally inadequate parking for bicycles (ie almost none).

In the interim, I have built a parking station on our driveway. It has room for 6 bikes comfortably, and more can pile on if needed. We have been using it constantly for a year now, with no problems. 3 wooden pallets, a claw hammer, a saw and some nails is all that's required.

At first, local drivers didn't know what to make of it - people had grown quite used to parking on our driveway. They would attempt to park as close as possible, making it impossible to get bikes in and out.

Gradually it has been accepted as a fixture. My partner suggested painting it brightly, turning it from a heap of wooden pallets into something in its own right.

Recently I came across the RoadWitch project, and realized this is probably similar to what we have done - reclaiming space from the car. On a smaller scale, of course - and only to turn a single parking space over to multiple bikes.

Perhaps free residential parking spaces elsewhere could be turned over to bike parking like this? Ideally our councils would be the ones to do this, and would identify locations where it's needed most. Sheffield stands would also be a better choice than wooden pallets.

Oxford is fairly fortunate to have good bike parking in the shopping and university parts of town. But residential streets have been neglected so far - on-street parking should accommodate bikes as well as cars.

Car-sick Oxford cul de sac

The view from my window

This is a fairly typical image in Oxford. An ordinary cul de sac in Headington (Horwood Close, OX3 7RF, if you're interested).

Oxford is a 2-university city. With this comes students - lots of students. In turn, buy-to-let landlords and letting agents move in, either out of financial self interest, or a strong sense of social responsibility. Or maybe an element of both.

To accommodate the student population, and to extract the most rent from their investments, it's common for these to "renovate" properties to house more people than originally intended.

This is visible in the photo above. See the house in the background, with the white garage door? Every house in the close started off like that. One by one, the garage doors have been bricked up, adding a bedroom and making these 5 or even 6 bedroom properties.

That's what the building site in the photo is about - renovating another student house.

With no garage and 5 or 6 students per house, you'd expect a few parking problems - and you'd be right. I'd estimate there's 2 cars per household - the photo doesn't show the scale of the problem, as it's a Sunday morning and some of the cars are off running errands etc.

Oxford Brookes' campus is 1km away. The older Oxford colleges - 2km. Perfect for cycling.

Yet this cul de sac has a major car problem, and no cycle parking. (There are a couple of Sheffield stands up at the far end of the cul de sac, but nothing at this end).

What is needed is parking for maybe 30 bikes. This could replace 3 parking spaces. Nothing fancy, just Sheffield stands, perhaps with a bus-shelter style roof over the top. (I can dream).

Pehaps when local councils approve building alterations, as they have done in this close over the last 10 years or so, they should require that the property developers also put in the necessary infrastructure to suit the changing use of the housing?

So, when family homes for 4 people, with garages, become student households of 5 or 6, the developers should pay for on-street bike parking. Like how big housing developers may be required to build a school when they want to build 500 homes, but on a smaller scale.

Next post - my stop-gap interim solution.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Stop the child murder - UK edition

Parents in the UK, and the rest of us, have a terrible choice to make. I hope it is not an understatement to say this - and that the title is appropriate.

The choice is this:

- On the one hand, letting your child out to play, or to ride a bike to school, seems like madness given the state of the roads (and the steady stream of news peddling fear). So most parents keep their kids in, and drive them to school. If i had young kids, there's no way I'd let them cycle on the very roads I ride every day.

- On the other, keeping our kids inactive is storing up an epidemic of health problems for the future. Obesity, diabetes, depression - it's here already, and it's going to get worse.

We need to let our kids get out, be active, and cycle to school. For that, we need to make a major change to our environment.

This has happened before.

In the Netherlands in the 1970s, a few people recognized that car usage was on the way up. Also, the number of people killed or seriously injured (KSI) on the roads was also on the increase.

"Stop de Kindermoord" ("Stop the Child Murder") was the response.

David Hembrow has already detailed this (at ).

It was abhorrent and unacceptable that child deaths would be the cost of driving - their government responded to this, and gave the necessary attention and money to developing safe, effective cycle routes. (Ones you would actually want to use, not the paint-on-pavements "safe-routes-to-school" the UK has opted for). Cycling increased, and deaths on the roads fell in the same period.

So, if the UK is to have its much-mentioned "cycling revolution", perhaps we need to make this less about cyclists, and more about children?

The nutjobs can rant and rave about how cyclists "ride on the pavement and run red lights and don't have lights and don't even pay 'road tax' and murder policemen and...", because they don't cycle and they don't know anyone who does.

But everyone knows children, or can sympathize, and would wish them well. And best of all, they're on our side! They overwhelmingly want to get out more, and to cycle.

We are in a very different position to the Dutch in the 1970s. We have engineered cycling completely out of the equation, off our streets and out of our collective consciousness. The scale of this erasure is so complete that it would be hard, now, to make the case that children are dying on our roads. The problem is so bad, that parents have chosen to protect their kids by keeping them off the streets. We're still killing them, but softly - depriving them of activity and fresh air now, and setting them up for major health issues later.

We can offer helmets, and cycle training, and say we're promoting cycling, but as long as we fail to address what keeps cycling at pitiful levels in the UK (2% of journeys; 68% of adults never cycle), all that training just helps people ride around Centre Parcs - they won't do it out in the world.

This is why i despair of the mainstream cycling lobby in the UK - the CTC, and Sustrans, who seem to have colluded with TfL and the DfT to maintain "vehicular cycling" as the only option. It's certainly the only way i feel safe to cycle in the UK, but it's a last-resort survival tactic i wouldn't wish on my loved ones, or anyone else.

(Vehicular cyclng - Copenhagenize has a tongue-in-cheek discussion at )

Their "hierarchy of provision", with dedicated cycling facilities at the bottom, is no doubt meant with good intentions. We would all prefer calm, safe roads (designed with cycling in mind) to the pisspoor pavement bike lane / shared-use paths that serve no-one and put pedestrians and cyclists at risk. To be honest, this is broadly what they call for.

The outcome, however, seems to be that the middle option, "reallocation of carriageway space" (aka gutter cycle lanes), has been overwhelmingly popular with planners. It costs peanuts, and doesn't interfere with the road layout (since dashed-line "advisory" cycle lanes, the commonest type, allow any vehicle to drive in them). The better options - actually improving the road network for cycling - are just seen as too hard.

The CTC tells us that they "believe that pavements should be safe for pedestrians, and that the carriageway should be made safe for cycling". Neither has happened. Cycling (and walking) are flatlining in this country. Unless we rethink radically, and change our priorities, it's only going to get worse.