After having read a very interesting post on 'A view from the cycle path' on what to copy from the very good Dutch cycling infrastructure to e.g., the UK and what not, I bounced off a few idea's indicating that it might not be such a good idea to just copy anything from any country to another, and more specifically not the Dutch cycling infrastructure. The summary of the answer was that I didn't know my own country so much. Well...let's see.
The short answer to the question why a cyclists lobby will never be successful in e.g., the UK and many other countries has to do with the very nature of lobbies in democracy. They are only successful if it concerns:
1- a lot of people
2- a high (future) economical value
In a democracy any lobby not concerning the two above, just get bits and pieces. Unfortunately in the UK, cyclists are not a lot of people, nor do they represent a high economical value.
If you disagree with this mechanism, then please consider some other small lobbies that have goals you disagree with, before you make up your mind. You and I might like cycling, a large portion of the UK population might actually be totally indifferent or even hate cyclists.
If you think this answer is too short, then read on.
There might be an exception to the above for the unintended weak (ill, elderly, children, animals), but even that's limited. If it does not concern the two above or the unintended weak, then such lobby is close to being seen as extraordinary, too expensive or even extremist. If a small lobby is successful, it's only on a short term, or it's soon seen as undemocratic. People putting themselves willingly into a weak minority position are considered as idiots, that might get bits and pieces to execute their weird and dangerous hobbies.
Cyclists are putting themselves willingly into a vulnerable minority position in the UK...I'm not suggesting they are idiots, but I'm indicating they will be considered as such by the masses.
If you think this answer is too short then read on. Don't get me wrong on this section below, I'm NOT cynical. I'm 100pct in favor of the democratic mechanism described below, but unfortunately, in this case it just doesn't work out for something I personally consider a good cause, cycling.
Then how does it go, such lobby of the willingly weak minority? Of course they got a point in this case. Cycling is healthier, better for the environment and reduces traffic congestion. But, poor cycling safety by poor infrasturcture prevents it from becoming a big success, at least that's the story. So, one day a politician gets entangled by such a lobby. By default, democratic polititians never like to get involved into small lobbies. They always have to defend themselves against the masses of the majority the next day. In democracy, that means (luckily in general) that you loose the battle as lobbyist in the long run and go home with only bits and pieces.
Anyway, one might get a local politician enthousiastic about the cycling infrastructure idea, on the back of the Dutch example. Well done! We are going to change London/Stockholm/Berlin into Amsterdam cycling paradise! No, you don't. The next day, the officials get the request to calculate what has to be done for getting the cycling infrastructure to Dutch standards. At best, the guy pulls out an old report and makes a little update. At worst, a whole committee is installed, visiting The Netherlands, spending a fortune (where does that money come from? well, from the wallet of the masses), only to come to the conclusion that nothing is the same in The Netherlands and that they would need significant budget to get anywhere near. Whether this is right or wrong (it's partially right), it doesn't matter, that's just the 1st impression you get from any foreign country. So, they report to the politician it's going to cost a lot. Oops, but that means that I will have less budget for improving roads for cars, or for public transport. How on earth am I going to defend that towards the petrol heads, the elderly taking public transport or the children taking the schoolbus? Well, you don't. As a good politician, you give the willingly weak minority some bits and pieces. So, another stretch of a useless cycling lane is put somewhere in the outskirts of a city. Useless and just confirming towards the masses that no money should be spent on cycling lanes.
Is the cycling lobby outside The Netherlands then on a dead end? I'm afraid so. They missed the starting gun, somewhere in the seventies (instead, they were listening to Pink Floyd's 1973 album Dark Side of the Moon, asking themselves whether they were missing one). But to be honest, I don't think there was a starting gun at all for most countries other than The Netherlands. Cycling is just a too inferior way of transportation in most cases to make it something useful for the masses, once first mopeds and then cars have become economically available. For now, one has to wait for a break through change in circumstances. Increasing petrol prices, bad economy for years, electrically assisted vehicles with some kind of a biking option, who knows what.
The question is then why this inferior cycling is still popular in The Netherlands, whereas it failed in nearly any other western country as a dominant way of transportation, and is about to fail in e.g., China and Vietnam? Are the Dutch so much brighter and more visionary than other people? I'd love to say yes of course, but that's just rubbish. Was it just coincidence then? Of course not.
It is very much into the social geography of The Netherlands, and especially in its economical heart, De Randstad, roughly the provinces Noord Holland, Zuid Holland and Utrecht. This area makes cycling actually something handy.
Also, there is not a single reason to it, but an entire chain of factors why it's so handy here. If one of these factors is not available in a country, cycling will fail as dominant transportation. The Netherlands is unique in that sense that all these factors have come together here, and, maybe with a bit of luck, we did hear the starting gun in the seventies. But I don't think that was luck, in my view that would have happened no matter what. Cycling is now in our veins for 80 years without interuption. The way of cycling has changed over the years and it will change in the future, but it will not easily disappear from the Lowlands.
Next post on those social geographic reasons.
I'm sorry for the couple of Dutch blunt remarks, but this is the way I think about the topic. Please make me happy showing a real example of another country where cycling is becoming a brilliant success in reality. But please hold your ideas about how it might become maybe a success in the distant future somewhere someday in another country if those stupid politicians would finally listen. That didn't happen for 40 years guys, and, sorry to say, but under current circumstances, the chances are decreasing every year that something would improve for the cyclists outside The Netherlands.
My message is, those politicians are not necessarily bright or stupid, they simply have different priorities and they should. If you go for sustainable transportation, pick one that fits your country. One that fits the needs of the masses. Probably it's there already in some form or another. Maybe it's cycling, but probably not.
In the mean time, keep on cycling and make others enthousiastic. I'm hoping so much I'm wrong.