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Wake the neighbours

Welcome to Decade Zero. The next ten years are our last chance to keep the global temperature rise under 2C°. Beyond that, the climate models start to break down and all bets are off.

On 17 December, one week after pledging to ambitious new goals at the Paris conference on climate change, the UK government announced sweeping cuts to renewable energy subsidies. Confused? Close your eyes. Picture this.


You’re on United Airlines 93 from Newark to San Francisco. We took off less than an hour ago. Armed men have taken control of the plane. The PA announces there is a bomb on board; we’re returning to the airport.

You turn on your phone, call someone in your family. They’re hysterical. Two planes have hit the World Trade Center. It’s 11 September 2001.

What do you do next?

OK. Cut.


What the passengers on Flight 93 did – 14 years ago – was break onto the flight deck. The pilot jerked the plane around but the passengers kept coming. They only failed get the plane back when they broke in because the hijackers, seeing the game was up, rolled the plane and crashed it in a field.

The unarmed passengers overwhelmed the hijackers. They were many. The hijackers were few. In under thirty minutes they changed from docile passengers into a militia defending their country.

Truly, we do not know ourselves until we are called on.

9/11 is part of our mental landscape now, but it wasn’t part of theirs. They had to overcome their unwillingness to believe they were in the hands of men who had no interest in their survival. That no help was coming. Imagine the word spreading through the cabin after your phone call. Each of your neighbours working his or her way to the same stark conclusion. We get onto the flight deck. Or it’s game over.

Imagine now how easily the hijackers could have avoided this. They were bearded and abusive. They wore red bandannas. Suppose they had been clean-shaven, polite. Announced they were federal agents foiling a plot involving crew members. Remain calm while we land the plane. Be vigilant: there might be other conspirators on board.

Messages like these over the PA would have been just enough to persuade passengers to – as usual – trust the men on the flight deck. Instead of breaking into the cockpit they would be watching each other for unusual behaviour. Right up to the end.


Today that is exactly where you and I find ourselves. The world economy is on a collision course with reality, ruining our health, our societies and the Earth’s capacity to sustain us. The plane is being jerked around as austerity programmes preoccupy us with our individual welfare. The men at the controls have no interest in our well-being, no matter what you hear on the PA. They have another agenda entirely.

The people on the world flight deck put wealth first. Their first concern is the economy that enriches them. They are wealth fundamentalists. They are dangerous extremists.

The media – our eyes and ears on the world – are in their pockets. It’s their PA. It tells us just enough to frighten us. It says the men on the flight deck are working on the problem. Watch each other for secret enemies.

We watch the climate conferences and hope for good news. Good people among us, like Jeremy Corbyn, call for better meals in economy. The worried sign petitions, knock on the cockpit door. Stay focused! Land the plane safely!

This is not set to end well.

What to do?

The first thing we have to do is the same thing first thing the passengers on Flight 93 had to do. We must abandon hope. Completely. Banging on the cockpit door gets us nothing. Hope is what you have left when you have no control. Thirty years of conferences and international inaction should have taught us that. Conferences like Paris are essential. But until the governments work for us and not the donors from the tax havens, the conferences will emit primarily hot air.

The second urgent thing we must do is wake up our neighbours. The extremists are few and we are many but most of us are still dozing, earplugs and eyemasks on. Yes, our neighbours mumble, bomb on the plane, yes, heard that. Very worrying. Returning to the airport. Keep your seatbelt on. Listen for more announcements.

Here we have help. There are great films around. You know them. The vanishing of the bees, the influence of lobbyists, the capture and corruption of the media. Find screenings. Take your family and friends to see them. Buy or borrow the DVDs and show the films at home; invite your friends and neighbours around. Again and again. Waking up takes time. Help people wake up.

Finally, we have to get onto the flight deck. In London our next chance to get people into the cockpit is in May. We’ll elect a Mayor and a new London Assembly. The voting system is unfamiliar. But it’s not too difficult. You have to understand it and teach it to the others. You have five months. Make sure everyone you know understands it and can explain it back to you. Here we go.

How to vote in London

There are three ballots: one for the Mayor, one for your constituency, and a London-wide vote. The London-wide vote is most likely to elect Greens. Focus on that.

In the London-wide ballot you vote for a party not a person. Green votes across London all add up. That’s how we have two Green members in the present Assembly and might get three, four or five in the next. If you remember only one thing, vote Green in the London-wide ballot.

For Mayor you pick your first and your second choice. If one candidate gets over half the vote in Round 1, he or she becomes Mayor. That has never happened. In Round 2 only the top two candidates remain. Now any second-choice votes for them get added to what they have. Whoever has more becomes the next Mayor.

What does that mean for you? You vote your heart first and your fear second. If you want a Green mayor and you fear a Tory one, pick Siân Berry as your first choice and Sadiq Kahn as your second. If Siân isn’t in Round 2, your vote goes to Khan. Simples.

The constituency ballot is easy to understand. It’s the old first-past-the-post Westminster system. You vote for one candidate; the one with most votes gets elected. I’m the Green Party candidate to represent Barnet & Camden. You’re welcome.

Will we get control of the plane in time? I don’t know. The PA is telling comforting lies. Dinner is being served, drinks. Movies are on. No one wants to wake up.

But like the passengers on September 11, we are many. We are called on now, and are about to know ourselves. Wake the neighbours.

An administrative affair

driving licence

I have a licence to drive. The state permits me to operate a vehicle on the public highway. To get this privilege, I had to demonstrate competence: to pass a driving test administered by the state. It’s the state’s job to ensure that when you use the public highway the motor vehicles you share it with are operated by people of established competence.

Everyone who has passed a driving test knows there are many ways to bring your competence into question. Top of the list is colliding — with a tree, a gatepost, a parked car or (whisper it) another road user. No one expects to pass a driving test in which they have collided with something or someone.

Driving examiners protect the public from drivers who are not demonstrably competent. Police officers investigating highway collisions should be empowered to do the same. In real life as much as in a driving test, a collision brings a driver’s competence into question. Investigating officers should as a matter of routine take and keep the licences of drivers involved in a collision until the investigation — or a subsequent court hearing — has removed the question over their competence. (This suspension should be for a minimum period — at  least 24 hours — to remove pressure on officers to resolve the matter on the spot.)

It would be a great inconvenience for drivers who collide, but there is no question here of reversal of the burden of proof or of punishment without trial. This is an administrative matter, protecting the public from drivers whose competence is currently in question. No right is being infringed. A licence to drive is a privilege requiring a demonstration of competence. It should be routinely suspended while that competence is being investigated. Who supports sharing our roads with drivers whose competence is in question? 

It is a sad thought, but the certainty of an immediate end to one’s journey and the added inconvenience of getting one’s vehicle impounded if no one else is available to drive it, would do more to improve driving standards than the currently remote prospect of conviction for a driving offence.

Road niggers

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The failure to prosecute Gale Purcell for the killing of Michael Mason should frighten anyone who rides a bicycle.

Mrs Purcell drove into the rear of Mr Mason’s bicycle as he was riding north on Regent Street in the West End of London on 25 February.

Mrs Purcell, who stopped at the scene, told the inquest she had not seen Mr Mason despite his bike having front and rear lights.

She was unable to explain to the inquest how she failed to see Mr Mason. The coroner, Dr William Dolman, recorded Mr Mason’s death as an accident.

A court trial might find reasons to acquit Mrs Purcell of manslaughter. But on the facts known so far she simply ran him down and killed him. She offers no reason why she should not be held responsible for his death.

The coroner sees no one responsible. It was an ‘accident’. It just happened. There is a case to answer that Mrs Purcell failed in her duty of care to other road users. But Dr Dolman excludes that.

The police consider they have insufficient evidence for a prosecution to succeed. They lament the absence of CCTV footage of the collision. It is hard to see why this would be relevant. No one disputes Mrs Purcell ran down Mr Mason and killed him. A film might show some unreported incident to explain what Mrs Purcell says she cannot explain. The defence might seize on that gratefully. But the absence of CCTV footage could hardly weaken a prosecution, and it is difficult to see what its presence might add to it.

View this as a test case. The facts are rarely this plain. The bald and frightening implication of the inquest is running down someone riding a bicycle is not an offence. We are ‘road niggers’. There is no justice for us.

This cannot stand. Urge and support the Cyclists Defence Fund and the CTC’s Road Justice campaign to get the coroner’s verdict overturned and Mrs Purcell prosecuted for killing Mr Mason.

A farewell to Sustrans

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Dear Sustrans

Notice of cancellation of funding

I have been funding your work for about a decade. Only a modest monthly donation, but these things add up. Today I have cancelled my Direct Debit. What you are doing is not what I want you to do, and I will no longer fund it.

What I want you to do is promote cycling as sustainable transport and to construct a national cycling network. Your name certainly suggests this work and for a long time I hoped that was what you were doing. But you‘re not.

You began so well, as the Bristol-based group who campaigned successfully for the Bath-Bristol bike path. That is a useful route between the two cities. It is now somewhat congested, which lessens its usefulness, but this only underlines the demand for good-quality routes.

In the decades since then, Sustrans has become a national organisation employing people around the country and handling tens of millions of pounds. What has this achieved?

The National Cycle Routes are not fit for long-distance travel, or even commuting. Take, for example, NCR 1. On the map it looks like my way in and out of London to the north east, a cyclist’s version of the M11. I have twice attempted to use it to reach Cambridge and been defeated both times. The Lee Valley section to Ware is too narrow, too congested, too obstructed and too badly surfaced to make progress. Compared to what? Compared for example to my route north-west from central Copenhagen to meetings in Bagsværd. I take the Hillerød motorway, which is equipped with comfortable bike paths. To leave London, I feel safer on the A1010, the old coaching road.

You will object that your work is not to serve experienced cyclists like myself, but to attract those not now riding. Very well – but to what?

Yesterday I again rode on the Lee Valley section of NCR 1, returning from a ride in Epping Forest. It was a perfect winter riding day, clear and cold. We stopped to admire ducks, talk to strangers and pet ponies. We took it carefully or walked over cobblestones, negotiated narrow muddy corners and dismounted for the gates. We had a delightful time. Everything was as it should be for a ride in a park. But you have no business claiming or designating this as a cross-country cycle route. The same is true of other paths suited to recreational riding that you have designated as NCRs: for the Thames Path, for NCR 61’s use of the Grand Union Canal towpath.

When you have a choice between the recreational and the useful, you choose the recreational. Take NCR 57, which can be picked up from the Metropolitan Line at Chesham and followed to Oxford. At Great Missenden it detours through picturesque Angling Spring Wood, a muddy detour to be avoided by any rider intent on reaching Oxford. At Wheatley it ignores the useful cycle path into Oxford beside the A40 for a picturesque ascent of Shotover Hill, across rutted gravel roads.

And this is the nub of my quarrel with what you are doing. You are promoting recreational riding for families and children where they can be out of the way of motor traffic. That is not a bad thing to do, but it is not sustainable transport and it is not the national cycle network we need. It does nothing to help us ride to work, to school or the shops. It does nothing to help me get between cities, as the Bristol-Bath path does. When I ride off from home in London to the shops or to see friends I see nothing of your work helping me. And when I ride across country I have learned to be wary of your routes.

Worse, you occupy a prominent place in the political landscape and consume a large part of the meagre resources granted. You claim to be working on a future of sustainable transport in which cycling plays a key part. By giving the comforting illusion of progress, and drawing resources to yourself, you are, I fear, more part of the problem than its solution. That is why I am cancelling your funding.

Yours sincerely

Stephen Taylor FRSA

Mastering rage

roadrage

YouTube is full of screaming confrontations with dangerous drivers. If you can master your rage and are lucky enough to look over 40, other conversations are open to you.

— Do you hold a licence to drive this vehicle?

— Of course I f*****g do!

— Come and see me at Marylebone Magistrates Court at 10.30 on Thursday morning. Bring the licence. Give the Clerk the name of the registered keeper of this vehicle: he will be expecting you. I will examine whether you are a fit person to hold a licence. This will be a personal hearing; you will not have representation. But if you fail to attend I will issue a bench warrant for dangerous driving, a charge which could lead to imprisonment. Do you have any questions about what I have just told you?

— What’s this about?

— That is the first question you will have to answer at the hearing. I suggest a careful reading of the Highway Code. We’ll talk again on Thursday. Be punctual; I have a full schedule.

If anything about this fantasy appeals to you, consider how little the law and justice system actually does to protect you. Support the Road Justice campaign.

RDRF Conference 2014

Attending the Road Danger Reduction Forum’s annual conference this weekend has moved me to resume writing here. If you weren’t at Southwark Town Hall on Saturday, here is what stood out to me.

Tony, Lord Berkeley, RDRF president, chairing the morning session, mentioned the Labour Party’s commitment to a new Transport Bill. He spoke also of the need for “a complete review of existing legislation” regarding conduct on the roads. A faint hope, perhaps, but worth nourishing.

Bob Davis, RDRF chair, was encouraged that the conference was booked out soon after it was announced. He compared the ‘road safety’ lobby’s focus on protecting “vulnerable road users” to Mae West’s observation:

maewest
Every man I meet wants to protect me.
I can’t figure out what from.

Most problems on the road stem from otherwise good people doing bad things. the culture of carelessness and its indulgence is what needs tackling. It begins with ourselves: recognising our own prejudices and working against them. We need to campaign to

stigmatise behaviour that endangers others

Close overtaking is the main source of KSIs.

Amy Aeron-Thomas of RoadPeace spoke eloquently to the statistics. In London in 2013, 2,000 people killed or injured in collisions. A person on foot 180 times more likely to be hurt than in a car. Police issued 7,275 Fixed-Penalty Notices for speeding, but only 5 boroughs averaged more than a single FPN a day for exceeding 30 mph. London sees only 2 FPNs/day for dangerous driving and 6 for careless driving. Ten times more charges brought for drunken driving than for dangers driving. Magistrates do not ban drivers for using phones while driving.

The definition of dangerous driving refers to disregard of other road users The definition of careless driving does not. RoadPeace asked the CPS if that implies disregard of other road users gets prosecuted as dangerous driving. The CPS says not.

National crime statistics: what gets included in the totals shows a bias to crimes against property. Dangerous and careless driving is included, but not drunken driving or hit-and-runs. Dangerous driving is excluded from statistics for violent crime. No count is kept of victims of road crimes.

Our culture of indulging carelessness behind the wheel is reflected in statistics that fail to capture the extent of road crimes and the damage inflicted.

Brenda Puech for Living Streets spoke of the 80 hit-and-run incidents a week in London, a shocking 20% of all collisions; of 400 KSIs a year from hit-and-runs.

The everyday normality of people getting killed on the roads.

She reviewed police analyses of the causes of collisions. Investigating officers more commonly blame pedestrians for failing to see cars than drivers for failing to see pedestrians.

Charlie Lloyd for the London Cycling Campaign spoke of 10% of cycling KSIs being caused by ‘dooring’ – careless opening of car doors. He examined Met. Police claims of a “crackdown” on road danger in its 2013  Operation Safeway and found of 14,269 FPNs issued only 93 were for careless driving.

Sgt Simon Clarke of the Met. Police spoke warmly of the new Road and Transport Command, with 2,300 officers, more than double the 1,000 officers of the former Safer Traffic Command. His enthusiasm for his work was encouraging.

My take-away from the conference: there is scope for an umbrella campaign against the culture of carelessness. It should be conducted on behalf of the general public, not ‘pedestrians’, ‘cyclists’ or anyone else who can be labeled as a special-interest group.

It might as well start by challenging  representations of Mr Toad as high-spirited and lovable:

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No more Toad on the Road!