On a dank and dreary Wednesday morning I opened my email to receive confirmation of what I had suspected for some time, Birmingham City Council have had ‘difficulties in securing a date and a suitable route’ and have therefore cancelled Sky Ride 2014. To some readers this news might appear as nothing more than a mild irritation as a fun day out is cancelled. Yet to others the cancellation of such an event is far more worrying. I’m afraid that while I will no doubt miss the day out with the kids I am in fact firmly in the latter camp and here’s why.
Lets Start By Clearing Up Some Nonsense
‘Being unable to identify a suitable date and route’ is nothing more than a statement that someone somewhere is incapable of doing their job. Hopsitals don’t cancel operations because surgeons can’t find scalpels. Publishers don't cancel their schedule because authors have not been commissioned. If a company fails to fill in its tax returns HMRC are not renowned for accepting ‘I couldn’t find a suitable date’ as a viable excuse. There are no shortage of resources given to our bi annual hosting of the Conservative party conference. Need I go on? We are a very, very capable city. Why then is it even imaginable that a city council with more resources at its disposal than most of us can comprehend is unable to identify a suitable date and location for an event of major strategic importance. Why? Because there is a demonstrative lack of will. Let’s try to imagine St Patrick’s day parade or Pride being cancelled on the same rationale. It would not happen. Why? Because both the Irish and LGBT community represent a significant electoral mandate.
Is It Really That Important?
Surely I’m on the verge of making a disproportionate fuss about one day. “Get over it” I hear you cry. Well before we rush to that conculsion just bear with me for a moment.
If you’re lucky enough to live in a leafy suburb with low levels of traffic and good air quality, where children play and ride their bikes freely just remember that for thousands of children in this city that is not their norm. Sky Ride is an annual demonstration that the aspirations of those children matter, that they ought to be protected and that an alternative future is possible. Sky Ride marks political possibility like no other event in town, it is a manifestation of ordinary cyclists being shown due respect, traveling without intimidation and doing so in the safety of numbers, it is a foretaste of what could be and what will be, but only if we continue to strive in the right direction. Take away the foretaste and the striving becomes that bit more difficult.
We Owe A Lot To Rover
I suspect that what’s actually at play here is a far, far deeper issue than we would otherwise like to admit. I live and work in Birmingham, I attend the city’s cycling forum and I hear the spin. Birmingham’s political leaders are undoubtedly trying their best to catch up with the cycling zeitgeist yet at exactly the same time Birmingham consistently appears to be a city whose administration are pulling in opposing directions. Huge sums of money are given to infrastructure redevelopment only for vital details to lack any sense of coherency. Mention this to any official and you’ll immediately be greeted by a look of resignation and a quick reminder that ‘it’s much more complicated than plebs like you and I could possibly understand’. And there in lies the real problem. Birmingham hosts the most complex motorway system in the UK, we built and sustain a six lane highway through the city centre and yet we are seemingly incapable of organising one day in celebration of all that cycling contributes to the welfare of the city and its economy. I do not believe that this problem exists because our councillors or officers are bad people, nor because they have a lack of conviction or expertise but because something in the Birmingham DNA is constantly pulling us back to an assumed prioritising of the motor car.
In his brilliant book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell observes how countries such as China, Japan and South Korea massively outstrip the rest of the world when it comes to educating their children. Why is that? Gladwell argues that it has a lot to do with an ancestry more intensive and consistent in its laboring of rice paddies than any other agrarian culture. Hard work is in their bones and it shows in ow they educate their children.
My worry for Birmingham is that having built generations of our history and thus our infrastructure on an unconditional valuing of the motor car Birmingham has become a city pathologically incapable of truly valuing a more sustainable mode of mobility. Our administrations support for the ‘cycling revolution’ is then just another way of saying that we are like a badly behaved child desperately trying to do the right thing.
Why I Think It Matters
This week my 11 year old son joined me for a ride across town to buy a pair of goggles (why you need to cross town to buy a pair of goggles is another post for another day). Riding through one of Birmingham’s more affluent suburbs we were constantly and aggressively heckled by motorists most of whom I would guess are otherwise considered to be polite law abiding citizens. Shoppers stood by and watched as motorists demonstrated pure agression. We in no way held back or unduly interrupted the flow of traffic yet we were constantly made to feel like we did not belong and that’s the heart of the problem. If you want people to act in pursuit of the common good you need to value them in their doing so. Sky Ride offers thousands of children a glimpse into a better world while encouraging the contributions they do already make.
Birmingham can learn to embrace the bicycle as more than an object fit for sporting prowess, we can learn to harness the ability of cycling to lower the demands on our already crippled health service, we can move our children from the highest levels of obesity in Europe towards a healthier future, we can clean up the air in our cities, we can nurture a happier, more productive workforce. But if we are to do any of this our politcal leaders must not only embrace the bicycle but must do more than any other city to demonstrate that commitment. We are in need of seismic cultural shift. The cancellation of this years Sky Ride is not therefore a regrettable standing still, it is not even one unfortunate pace backwards, it is an act of significant regress which allows old mindsets to remain in their assumed dominance. It is a tragedy.
I try my best to pursue a way of life which is more about hope than despair. I look forward to the day I eat my words, praise the courage of Birmingham City Council, enjoy an infrastructure designed and built to protect the most vulnerable. I look forward to celebrating the fact that the Sky Ride has been cancelled indefinitely due to an overwhelming lack of demand as cyclists routinely travel on safe segregated highways. In the mean time; onward!