I feel as if I have been away. Several weeks have passed without publishing anything on the blog, and almost as long since I rode a bike much more than the 15 minutes it takes to get to the station, and that’s not been much to write about during three weeks of frosty mornings.
This week that started to change as I emerged from several intense weeks at work and the weather has warmed up a few degrees. So I am telling anyone who asks that February 1st was my New Year’s day, the day I feel 2017 actually starts.
It certainly hasn’t been a cycling season, the snow that came earlier in the month froze hard and just wouldn’t melt from anywhere except the heavily salted roads, which meant my normal morning ride to Brussels on forest tracks was rather too much of a lottery to take the risk. If I had some wonderful cycling challenge planned this year I might have risked taking the plunge – but no.
In truth the weather was a minor factor. The main reason I was not blogging was because I was working all sorts of hours behind my laptop and frankly there wasn’t much energy left for the blog. I am sure many of my readers have had that moment when they have an essay, a thesis, some sort of proposal or a tender to write and inevitably it comes down to the final few days when everybody works like mad to get it submitted? (Unless you are the sort of smug creature that always has it done with a day to spare and looks down on the rest of us with some sort of pity? In which case you are not my friend anymore.)
We have been submitting applications for the EU’s transport research budgets, for which there is over €200million on offer in 2017. It’s a very odd time because there is no money at all allocated for cycling, but millions for more efficient cars or so called intelligent transport, the technological fixes that will supposedly transform the way we move in the coming years.
I find myself bouncing between deep cynicism and real enthusiasm during this process. I do not despair does despair of policy makers who are looking for technological magic bullets to fix issues that are really about their failure to get tough with dangerous polluting industries. I have great enthusiasm about the same technological ideas being brought to cycling. I think bike sharing, e-bikes, cargo bikes and some of the smart tools we can use on line for navigation or recording routes are brilliant.
Because of that I cannot see the point in trying to make urban car sharing work if bike sharing already does the job. Driverless cars on motorways perhaps, just ban the damn things in city centres. That doesn’t take millions of research Euros, it takes political will. (as seen in an inspirational article about 12 leading cities this week)
I guess I am also a bit disappointed because I know a lot those involved in this transport research are not really looking for a great technical breakthrough that will change the future, research is actually a defence. The established car industry is deeply rattled by the entry of Google, Apple and Tesla into the car market and the European makers have lobbied effectively to get big research funds to help keep pace with them, or any of the US and Asian makers who get to the market first.
And what am I defending against? I have the greatest fear that we are going to see one of the biggest industrial con tricks in history repeat itself all over again. That was the point in the 1920s where the US and British car industries convinced their governments that the trail of death left on the streets by their product was the fault of the victims. Other road users should be cleared out of the way in favour of their products, all in the interests of safety. Their lobbying worked and we have spent nearly 100 years trying to return those streets to people.
In the next ten years we are going to see a revolution in the way our streets are used, but at the moment nobody knows which technologies will “win”. There could be driverless cars. Equally there could be fleets of small automated cargobike sized pods, carrying people and goods in and out of city centres.
My fear is that our policy makers are so convinced in tech solutions and so determined to be “business-friendly” that when tech giants say that their vehicles cannot be trained to be safe around cyclists then we will be pushed to one side, just like 90 years ago. Or driverless pods will be so easy to call up on a Smart Watch that there is no longer any incentive for anyone to walk, let alone cycle, with a massive detriment to public health and bike paths will be full of these mobile speed humps.
So tactically I know we have to play cycling’s high tech card at every turn, to show why e-bikes are outselling e-cars 20:1, why bike share works in hundreds of cities and how those technologies can still be developed with more research.
That’s why we try to fight our way into the research projects alongside the bigger industries. So we can have some sort of voice for not only the new high tech cycling, but make sure we are protecting what we have. I was at the grand opening of Shimano’s new European Headquarters last week where it is apparent that the world’s leading bike and parts makers are thinking the same way. Shimano have moved themselves onto a high tech campus in Eindhoven, because they couldn’t get enough highly qualified staff at their previous location. Even the giants have to invest to keep up with hi-tech.
E-bike, cargo bike, bikes and big data, bikes and new electric vehicles, bike sharing – its been a very geeky month writing those research proposals and by the end my head was completely swamped. Now I would very much like to spend a month riding one my very old school bikes up an extremely traditional forest trail to work. I will be going back to the fight for the future of cycling – but a bit later.