Cycle Campaigning: The fun part

July 11, 2021

I try not to bang on TOO much about cycling on this blog, and particularly the campaigning side of it (no really, this is genuinely the non-banging-on version) but the truth is it’s effectively a full time job (on top of my other full-time jobs, which include, if the last week is anything to go by, gardening). Yesterday was a case in point. We’ve recently heard that Highways England for some reason has responsibility for maintaining a number of bridges that take roads over disused railway lines and it’s decided to ‘maintain’ them by effectively filling them in with gravel and then concreting it over.

railway bridge arch

This is a serious campaign issue as it would put a giant spanner in any attempts to reopen the old railway line to Stranraer either to trains or, failing that, walkers and cyclists. It’s also extra annoying that an English body can apparently do this to Scottish bridges and the council’s response has been to roll over and let Highways England tickle its tummy.* More to the point, one of the bridges was only a few miles away and we decided a recce would be in order. So yesterday three of us headed out to check out this bridge that was apparently in need of drastic work so that it could support ‘modern traffic levels’ including 40-tonne vehicles.

Along this road.

narrow rural road

Note the heavy modern traffic levels (e-bikes do weigh a fair bit, it’s true, but tend to come in kilograms rather than tonnes …)

e-bike and rider on otherwise empty road

After a gentle ride untroubled by any modern traffic at all apart from one speedy cyclist who needed to overtake us as we bimbled along three abreast, we came to the bridge and did a spot of exploration (they don’t tell you you need advanced fence climbing and bank scrambling skills at cycle campaigner school).

Bank leading down to railway bridge

Having taken photos and extricated myself from a barbed wire fence, we then decided to take the scenic route home.

person looking down over bridge parapet

Because that’s what being a cyclist is really all about.

looking down into a narrow valley from a hillside

(top tip, don’t let the mountain biker suggest the route if you’re not comfortable riding on gravel, which my bike handles like an arthritic giraffe in two-inch heels despite supposedly starting life as a mountain bike back in the 80s. On the other hand, do stop to forage when you find a massive patch of wild strawberries on the way)

stopping to pick wild strawberries

Of course, that still left the actual campaigning part: the social media posts, writing it all up, promoting the petition, raising the issue with local politicians, and also annoying your regular blog readers with cycle campaign chat. So that was Saturday gone, albeit mostly enjoyably. And today will be taken up with ride leading – also a lot of fun – so that’s the weekend gone. It’s worth it, and I think it’s important, but the next time someone asks me why I took over a decade to write my new book I might point them to this post…

* What makes it even MORE annoying is that the other bridge they’re planning to fill in will block a landowner’s access completely to half his fields and they can apparently just do that with no consultation, whereas a single objection by a landowner to any proposed cycle path which might mildly inconvenience their farming activities kicks the whole scheme out of touch for ever.

Club 50-80

May 19, 2019

Anyone following along on Twitter will know that I managed to crack the code and get my £17 ticket to Inverness – meaning my £15 Club 50 membership has already paid for itself about 4 times over. I even managed to navigate the various hazards of late-running trains, tight connections and the late train home from Glasgow which can be lively* on a Saturday night.

Inverness itself was eye-opening. One of our latest projects for We Walk, We Cycle, We Vote is to try and understand how our streets can be redesigned to accommodate not just cycling but visually impaired and disabled people as well. We felt that the best way to do that was to go on an exploration together with a motley crew of blind people with guide dogs and white sticks, a young man in a wheelchair, and a handful of campaigners.

Inverness street sculpture

Public art or confusing obstacle? If all you have to go on is your white cane, this appears to be a flight of steps

At one point, with a pair of specs on that effectively rendered me completely blind, I had to put my own safety in the hands of one of our blind companions. I know that these sorts of simulations aren’t always considered all that illuminating (all I really learned was that I was completely incapable of moving anywhere without my vision, which I could probably have guessed) but it is a humbling experience to allow yourself to be led through the streets by someone who can’t see either but can navigate confidently and calmly and transmit that confidence to you. And, in a way I can’t quite put into words, it changed the whole dynamic of the discussion afterwards into something much more open and mutually illuminating. Maybe there’s something in those annoying trust exercises after all.

Looking at a dropped kerb

Kerb nerdery with a purpose

This is a work in progress, and we’ll be repeating the exercise in Glasgow and Edinburgh in a few weeks with different participant. Excitingly, this means that not only will I get a chance to deepen my understanding of what ‘streets for all’ really means in practice, but I’ll get to use my Club 50 card again. I knew my 50s were going to be fun. Just don’t expect to find me in the party carriage any time soon.

* Fortunately this time the party was going on in the other carriage; I was facing the other way so couldn’t see what was going on but, from the running commentary provided by a group of teenage boys who could see – indeed were craning their necks to make sure they didn’t miss any of it (‘she’s got her top off and she’s wearing a black bra’) – the group of women making most of the noise had lunched very well indeed.

Taking it to the Streets

February 2, 2018

chalk heart

So I’ve been saying for a while now that as campaigners, we need to get out of our social media bubble and do more in the real world. And obviously by ‘we’, I mean ‘everyone else’, because getting out there and doing stuff in the real world doesn’t really change much when you have cows for neighbours, and even then only a few months of the year.

Still, Back on my Bike has ways of digging me out of my rural fastness to join her for some event or other. The most effective involves suggesting things that aren’t going to happen for a ridiculously long time so I don’t need to worry about them, and then filling me with enough coffee and cake that we can hatch all sorts of ridiculously ambitious ideas about what we could do in the unlikely event that we make it through to the new year alive.

And then suddenly it is February 2018 and as part of the Firestarter Festival (launched by the First Minister no less), we seem to have rashly agreed to transform four parking spaces in the middle of Edinburgh into a pop-up park, and turn a dead space for cars into a welcoming place for people. In February. Yeah, that February, the cold one.

Fortunately, my partner in crime is the most organised person in the world, so has done the bulk of the actual work, which means it will actually happen, rather than remaining a beautiful idea. So now all we need is some actual people to come and enjoy it. If you’re in Edinburgh next Friday, please do drop by. We can’t guarantee Nicola will join us, but you never know.

Meanwhile, I have been busy plotting another real-world intervention, of which more anon…

Slow Cycling Champion

November 1, 2017

Barely had I unpacked from our Northern Ireland trip when I had to head up to Glasgow for the Cycling Scotland conference, where some of you might have gathered on Twitter, I won an award:

(my favourite response on Twitter to the announcement was “over what distance?” “Five years”, I suppose would be the most accurate answer …)

Anyway, it was nice to be recognised even if I feel a bit of a fraud as so many other people do a hell of a lot of work too. It did mean that I then had to work out how to cycle back up the hill from the station with not only a large glass weight* but a bottle of prosecco, a bag of chocolates and a rather delicate looking little pot plant. I feel certain that a real cycling champion would have managed but in the end I had to give the pot plant away to a good home. My shiny new pannier otherwise rose splendidly to the occasion though, and the chocolates certainly helped…

cycling champion plaque

Cycling champion award loot

After a lovely couple of weeks off, and an energising and interesting two days (not something I would have said about the Cycling Scotland conference back in the day when it was usually a bunch of men in suits reading their powerpoint slides to you), I am hopefully now refreshed and ready to get back into the campaigning saddle for the next five years…

* As someone on the night commented, “Typical cycle campaigner, even when you give them an award they moan about it.”

Showing Up

September 29, 2017

One of the things I have been pondering for a while is how campaigners (and indeed writers and other people trying to make the world a better place by whatever means at their disposal) can support each other. There are many facets to this, some philosophical and some practical, but one really simple thing is simply to show up for stuff.

morning clouds

And so, I’ve been making an effort to get out and support other people’s events, even if they don’t feel like a massive priority for me. Sometimes this has felt like a hardship, but on the whole it’s quite nice to be at an event where your only responsibility is to exist.

morning clouds and sunshine

And when it means cycling to Old Nearest Village on a dewy not-quite-managing-to-rain morning to eat cakes and drink tea and exchange gossip in the name of defeating cancer, I can’t even pretend it was an imposition.

ford no progress

(They don’t seem to be making much progress with the ford though, for some reason. They’d better hurry before that paint wears off altogether)

Tomorrow I will be here, being blissfully no-longer-in-charge, but hopefully supportive of those who are.

I could actually get used to this.

If I Ever Go on Mastermind…

April 7, 2017

… My specialist subject can be ‘Scottish local authority election candidates, May 2017’

We have finally got the Walk, Cycle, Vote candidate database up and running, complete with funky mapping based ward finder courtesy of the other half, and we’re on the hunt for contact details for all the candidates (and there are over 2,500 of them). This is surprisingly difficult. You would think that, were you running for office, that you would want to let your electorate know what your policies were and how they might contact you, but you would largely be wrong. We have someone on the case truffling out the various twitter accounts, Facebook pages and websites-that-haven’t-been-updated-since-2015. And I’ve been doing the checking, data munging (it is a word) and generally falling down a rabbithole of wondering why some local parties’ Facebook pages need to have a description on them saying that THIS is the official Facebook page and we should ignore anything with a similar name that isn’t the official Facebook page and not believe anything that’s on it.

We also had a brilliant Women’s Cycle Forum Hustings in Glasgow at the brilliant Glasgow Women’s Library, with loads of brilliant and interesting and passionate women, but I haven’t had time to write it up yet, so you’ll just have to believe me.

The election is in less than a month (and Pedal on Parliament is in just over a fortnight). I don’t know whether to be relieved that the end is in sight, or panic, so I’m alternating between the two.

Five* Go Mad** in Holland***

September 1, 2016

I’ve been up in Glesgae for a day’s adventure which I may get around to blogging about or I may not. But no time now because I have to pack and get an early(ish) night for tomorrow I’m off to Newcastle to get the ferry to Amsterdam with three of my cycle campaigning female buddies – for what will be a part study tour, part bonding exercise and hopefully a wholly fun trip. I’d be even more excited if the nature of my freelancing and cycle campaigning life didn’t mean I was going to have to lug my laptop along for the ride and find the odd hour or three here and there in between admiring bus stop bypasses and whatever else it is we will be doing. There may well be blogging too – or at least the odd over-excited tweet. And we will return on Tuesday refreshed, re-energised, and ready to take on the world.

Look out, Scotland …

* well, four but nobody really counts Timmy the dog.

** although, to be honest, we’ll probably end up being quite sensible. One of us even emailed around a packing list for the trip…

*** I know, I know, calling it Holland instead of the Netherlands is like calling Britain ‘England’ but it works better that way and besides Amsterdam actually is in Holland so that’s all right then.


September 23, 2015

Somewhat as a joke, I made a New Year’s Resolution not to start any more cycling organisations this year, having in the past four years got myself tangled up in the founding of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, Cycling Dumfries, Pedal on Parliament and the Women’s Cycle Forum. And then in June, buoyed by the success of a Family Bike Curious event, and possibly having had rather too much coffee and cake,* I was sitting in a room with a lot of cycling people discussing plans for the 2016 Holyrood elections.** We had just achieved the marvellous feat of getting about 20 cycling and active travel organisations to agree on 3 key priorities for politicians and cycling*** and it seemed to me that this was an opportunity too good to be missed. As nobody else was suggesting it, I wondered aloud whether we needed some sort of an umbrella campaign to help us present a united front. Encouraged by Suzanne Forup of the CTC, another person who doesn’t know to duck when an opportunity to do a lot of thankless work presents itself, I found myself mentioning that it would be a fairly simple matter to set up a website to co-ordinate things. And the next thing you know …

We Walk, We Cycle, We Vote

So far, all we have is a name, a logo, a Facebook page, a small budget, and a dawning realisation that things are about to get very, very busy.

If you’re in Scotland and you’d like to see more investment in active travel, infrastructure that anyone can cycle on, and safer roads for the most vulnerable, then please join us.

* If you want to get me to do something for you, inviting me out for coffee and cake is an excellent start. I get overexcited just at having left the house, and then the caffeine and sugar kicks in and the next thing I know I’ve got at least a pop up bookshop or a small origami publication on my hands, if not a full blown cycling campaign…

** I know, I know, but it turns out the time to start talking tactics about election campaigns is about a week after the last one. No wonder politicians are all a bit odd.

*** and if you’re not thinking that’s remarkable, then you don’t know more than one cyclist; in fact, leave a single cyclist in an empty room and when you come back you may find that they are disagreeing with themselves over the correct apparel, pedalling cadence, gear ratio, or indeed the best kind of cake…

Me and My Dog

March 4, 2015

my new dog. Cheaper to feed than a real one...

my new dog. Cheaper to feed than a real one…

Cycle campaigning takes you to some unexpected places – like the head of a huge crowd of cyclists in the heart of Edinburgh and meetings with ministers albeit not yet meetings of minds. But perhaps the most unexpected was when I found myself crouching on the floor of an artist’s studio (fortunately I had just been to yoga so was feeling extra bendy) painstakingly inching a wee paper dog along a paper pavement frame by frame by frame…

It all started with a throwaway idea that Pedal on Parliament should do a little animation to try and reach out beyond our core audience of people who already think cycling is the answer and what was the question? That lasted until I found out how much a short animation might cost (anywhere between ‘how much!?’ and ‘couldn’t you just build a cycle path for that and have done with it’). Clearly POP, funded as it is on t-shirt sales and home baking, wasn’t in that league. But then we got the opportunity to apply for some grassroots funding via the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, just as my pal and co-conspirator in other literary and artistic matters, Hugh Bryden, mentioned he was interested in developing his animation skills.

The cast of the PoP movie relaxing behind the scenes

The cast of the PoP movie relaxing behind the scenes

Cut a long story short, and after some back and forth with designs and storyboards and messing around with coloured paper, the basic animation was done and I went to see the first rough cuts. It all looked amazing, but there was one tiny flaw. The crucial thing that really gets people cycling, when all is said and done, is proper space for cycling, separated from the traffic by something more substantial than a line of white paint and the fond hope that drivers won’t cross it and squash any cyclists who might happen to be on the other side. Unfortunately Hugh had based one scene on a standard UK cycle lane: white paint, fond hope and all. One whole scene needed to be re-shot.

Oh no, where's the cycle track?

Oh no, where’s the cycle track?

Which was where I came in. Hugh had created all the characters and set up the studio, but his animation assistant had gone back to New York. I had to step into the breach and spend a whole afternoon helping to recreate a few short seconds of footage. Watch very carefully what follows, because if you blink you will miss it. And keep an eye on that wee dog.

(I think you’ll agree that Hugh’s goal of getting to grips with animation has been pretty comprehensively met)

Anyway, please do me a favour. I know many of you only put up with the cycling stuff in return for posts about rural life and my rubbish gardening exploits, but please do pass this on to anyone you know who you think might be interested, cyclists or not. In fact especially the not. We’re not trying to force everyone to cycle, willy nilly, just because we think it’s a good thing (although it is). We’re simply trying to build the sort of Scotland where people can cycle if they want to, because we think that makes life better for everyone. Even those who don’t ride a bike and never will…

The Squeaky Wheel

February 23, 2015

I was at a cycle campaigners’ day on Saturday up in Edinburgh which was not just a nice opportunity for me to stand up and talk rubbish at people who could neither interrupt nor politely leave,* but also to meet others who could talk sense about their own campaigns. In among the other speakers was a local politician who was there to tell us how best to influence local politicians (and no, you cynics, brown envelopes full of cash didn’t feature although given today’s headlines perhaps that’s where we’re going wrong). There are a lot of people who would like cycle campaigners to be more positive generally – back-pedalling somewhat on the whole cyclists getting squashed by lorries thing, not getting too shouty when misguided advertising campaigns attempt to foster mutual respect by accusing all cyclists of running red lights, and not simply pointing and laughing when councils release plans for cycle paths that send cyclists into the side of a bus stop. Obviously, politicians are usually included in this group; indeed we have had representations made to us that it was unfortunate that a minister got heckled at the last Pedal on Parliament but one because now they won’t want to come any more, the poor delicate wee flowers. To which I reply: have these people never had to go to a hustings in Glasgow? I mean seriously? You’re a Scottish politician and you don’t like to be heckled? Because being heckled is, in fact, your job.

Cleaned bicycle. Archive shot. No bicycles were actually cleaned in the making of this blog

Cleaned bicycle. Archive shot. No bicycles were actually cleaned in the making of this blog

So anyway, at this point, I was about to develop an elaborate metaphor about how I don’t clean and oil my chain when it’s purring along nicely telling me what a wonderful job I’m doing maintaining my bicycle, but wait until it’s bitching and moaning with every gear change about my dreadful neglect. And then I rode into to town today and I realised that in fact, I don’t oil it then either. I wait until it won’t get into the lowest gear when I need to get up the steepest hill into an icy headwind because of my neglect and THEN I promise that when I get home – if I get home – I will definitely oil it, and give the whole bike a good wash and brush up to boot.

Oh, and then I get safely home and forget all about it until just now. You may develop your own elaborate metaphor about the political process, poltiicans’ promises and the coming election if you like.

*I’m possibly the only person in the country who actually looks forward to doing a bit of public speaking. Don’t tell anyone though because it’s a bit embarrassing.