Car free in a crisis

‘Is there really nowhere that you want to go, that you can’t get to now?’ I was asked by an incredulous young woman at a conference earlier in the year, the week before lockdown ended conferences as we knew them. We were talking about rural transport issues; having outed myself as purposefully car-free I then had to explain to the horrified teenager that the lifestyle of a middle aged working mother meant that Friday nights were a rare and valued opportunity to see my own sofa, not a time to head out to the clubs, restaurants and bars in the nearest city. I don’t need a car now but, thinking back to my own teenage life in suburban Surrey, I totally understood why she did.

I passed my driving test at 18 and, thanks to the generosity (continuing, as they had paid for the lessons) of my parents, my world widened from behind the wheel of Gabriel, a Nissan Cherry of a similar vintage to me. Gabriel and £10 of petrol every week or so freed me from fear of walking alone on dark nights, from obligations to people I didn’t know well enough to feel safe with and gave me the freedom to choose when and where I went. I loved that car and the independence it gave me and, by association, my younger sister who more than once had to be picked up somewhere ridiculous in the middle of the night. Examination of the parental photo albums has sadly not produced a picture of Gabriel, but this is Bazhov, who followed after Gabriel finally lost his long battle with rust:

I’ve not owned my own car for about 20 years, but between generous partners and affordable rental I’ve had access to a car when I’ve needed one. With a few adventurous exceptions, my car use has been principally for adulting – moving house, obtaining chickens and ferrets*, collecting furniture and stretching the working day by travelling before the first train starts and after the last train has gone. It’s only since the passing of Car Forup three years ago that I’ve made a conscious decision that I won’t be driving again unless there is an actual emergency. I’ve also recognised the privilege of this position, living close to a train station, choosing work that doesn’t require a commute and the income to live somewhere that I don’t want to escape from every weekend.

*Chicks, when my (carfree) friend Jane was going through a chicken rearing phase (ferrets obtained separately)

Being car-free has restricted my choices but has bought its own freedoms. I can’t drive into the big city to catch that 6am train from Edinburgh for a meeting in Birmingham, collect anyone from a late night flight or act as a taxi service for small children. I don’t have to parallel park ever again. We’ve made irregular use of the local car club since Car Forup went to the great parking lot in the sky and little has changed since I reviewed our first year of living carlessly. We use the car club less than we expected despite it being easy, cheap and just around the corner. Not having a private car sat outside our house means that driving is always a considered choice because we have to book ahead, even if just an hour before we want it. Over the last six months our overwhelming choice has been not to travel unless we can do it by bicycle.

The different stages of Coronavirus have shone a light on travel and transport choices as we determined what essential journeys were, and how we should undertake them. Whilst the middle classes have been overwhelmingly freed from their daily commutes, the choice to work from home is not available for everyone, with 22% of workers in disadvantaged households working from home full time compared to 53% in more affluent households. Without access to affordable, safe and convenient alternatives the most disadvantaged could be forced into car ownership that they cannot afford.

With car use returning to pre-pandemic levels, we are back to the pre-pandemic conversation about equitable use of our street space, but through a sharper lens that has seen a glimpse of a low-traffic future. Infrastructure can provide safe separation from motorised vehicles, but removing the vehicles from the streets will put people at the heart of our places. We are now looking at 20 minute neighbourhoods and all the positive possibilities they promise, but proximity to services is just one part of the puzzle. We also need to address the current and future levels of private car ownership and how we build low-traffic neighbourhoods.

Car ownership in the UK has gone up over the last 30 years, almost doubling between my teenage years and now, and although the cost of car ownership and driving has decreased in real terms, it is still an expense. We know car ownership tends to increase with affluence, but those in rural areas of all income levels own cars because of the lack of alternatives. Meanwhile, the cost of public transport has increased and bus patronage is falling.

Travel choices are complex but with private cars sitting outside the homes of 72% of Scots, I’m unconvinced we will see a step change in mode share until that number has declined significantly. Unfortunately it’s not enough to enable the behaviour you want, you need to discourage the behaviour you don’t. Even in high cycling countries, with infrastructure that Scotland can only dream of, car ownership and use continues to increase as a function of affluence and lack of other measures to prevent it rising.

When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression

attributed to various people on the internet

Those frothing that we already have a war on cars are suddenly finding themselves the protectors of the disabled and elderly, something that disabled campaigners have raised a sceptical eye at.

Whilst we must protect the mobility and freedom of disabled people, decisions should be led by their needs and experiences not appropriated by those with another agenda related to their own driving intentions.

Our addiction to cars is a public health crisis – contributing to ill health through inactivity and air pollution, as well as death and injury from collisions and worldwide impacts due to climate change – and we should think of it in those terms. All of the evidence tells us we need to reduce the number of private cars on the road, remove the most harmful quickly and prevent people buying the most polluting and destructive. SUV ownership alone is an escalating climate crisis – together they emit more carbon than the UK and the Netherlands combined – and sales have increased to become 40% of all cars purchased in 2019.

The recent UK Climate Assembly Report contained some interesting insights from ‘normal people’ (as opposed to cycle campaigners) on the carrots and sticks of a low carbon future, wrestling with the ultimate chicken and egg of sustainable transport policy: how do we reduce car use and increase active and sustainable transport, whilst not exacerbating inequalities or unduly restricting ‘personal choice’? It seems people won’t give up their cars until the alternatives are more convenient, and alternatives won’t be more convenient (safe or attractive) until there are less cars on the roads where we live, work and play.

Encouraging people to change transport modes by providing and incentivising alternatives found most favour with the UK Climate Assembly members – measures such as investment in public and sustainable transport infrastructure and provision, increasing demand response transport, cheaper public transport, car scrappage schemes and mobility as a service (MaaS) schemes. Whilst some of these options are already available, they all need significant investment to scale them as mainstream options for everyone.

The carrots offer choice and personal agency, but car ownership and use in high cycling countries probably indicates that it’s not enough to help us reach a low-carbon future that will protect the planet for generations to come. With the caveat that low-cost mobility (motorised or otherwise) for disabled people should be maintained wherever necessary, and those in economic disadvantage and rural areas need specific solutions, if we want to reduce car dominance of our towns and cities we might want to look at some of these options that come with a stick attached:

Shift what we think of as normal by banning car advertising: the motor industry spends at least US$35.5bn on advertising a year, and although some of the Climate Assembly didn’t think this was influential on consumer choices, I think there’s a reason why an industry spends more on advertising than the GDP of 91 of the worlds poorest countries. Advertising shapes our world view, even unconsciously, and therefore our attitudes and choices. Let’s stop glamorising and normalising car ownership and driving, or at least point out the harm it does as we did for cigarettes.

And let’s see more of this:

Dutch e-bike advert, banned in France

Make driving pay the full costs: Driving a motorised vehicle is a cost to society and we should make individuals pay to exercise that choice, just as we should for the privilege for storing private property on public land. Implementing higher parking fees, increasing fuel tax, introducing congestion charges and a workplace parking levy and increasing tax paid on the most polluting cars will put a value on our space and make drivers pay a rate that incorporates negative external costs. When all the financial costs are borne by the individual, and not wider society, we might see that it’s just not worth maintaining or storing metal boxes in places where we could have trees, playgrounds, plants, parks and seating instead.

On street trampoline in Amsterdam

Design cars out of our homes and communities: I’m not a planner or road engineer, so forgive my complete ignorance but I had no idea that providing space for three cars outside a home wasn’t considered to have an impact on car ownership levels. This figure (p167 of the The National Roads Development Guide) shows the privileged position we give to cars in new housing developments, with parking minimums instead of maximums, literally driving us towards climate change, congestion and ill health. Instead of this we should be moving towards developments that provide space for people, removing space dedicated to private cars and enabling easy access to walking, wheeling and cycling.

Continuing to design our towns and cities around motor vehicle movements and investing in infrastructure for cars excludes the most vulnerable from our communities, compromises investment in carbon neutral transport and reduces the urban environment to transport corridors. With around 2600 working days left until catastrophic climate change becomes inevitable, we don’t have long enough to rely on carrots.

Love your local

Dunbar Bear in the winter sunset

Love it or loathe it, local has been the only option for most of the world in recent months. I’ve taken my time to love where I live, but lockdown has highlighted the pleasures (and privilege) of calling this part of East Lothian home, where a 10 minute cycle can take you through town to woodlands and beaches against the backdrop of an everchanging seascape.

‘Community’ is a quicksilver and contested concept, but it felt palpable this spring as local volunteers put notes through doors to find who needed assistance and our local school parent council swung into action to ensure every child had a laptop for distance learning. The essential shops stepped up and provided vital provisions in the safest way that they could; our small community-owned grocery swiftly moved to a delivery-only service to prioritise the shielding community and the local supermarket staff worked round the clock to restock, providing a friendly smile at the same time.

We’re all adjusting to a new normal for the long haul now; where our commuter train services are relatively deserted, many of us don’t know when we’ll see the inside of an office or meeting room again and most of us don’t want to return to office working full time anyway. Coronavirus isn’t the only change agent around either; climate change hasn’t gone away and we’re looking straight into recession. It’s now even more evident than ever that we need a more radical change to the way we live now and into the future, providing an equitable quality of life for all over unsustainable rises in standard of living for the few.

The rise in homeworking and reluctance to restart expensive and soul-destroying commutes are perhaps why the 15 minute city and the 20 minute neighbourhood have started to gain attention beyond the usual suspects. If exchanging a long drive for a short walk to work has the same impact as a raise of 40% or falling in love, it’s possible that working where you live will make us all happier, as well addressing climate chaos and air pollution.

Most of us live in a town, or something that looks like one; 90% of Scots live in settlements of more than 500 people although they cover just 2% of our land area, and around 4.5m of us live in settlements of over 3000. Even our cities are more like collections of towns, with clustered services and a clear identity that defines them from the wider anonymity of a city.

Our decision to live in a small town was driven by marital compromise and economic reality, with my husband needing a substantial garden to call his own and I shuddered at the thought of being too far from my beloved Edinburgh. We live on the High Street, where you can find a butcher, baker and candlesticks (if not their maker), a greengrocer, a Co-op, two pharmacies, a sports shop, fishmonger, two charity shops, numerous cafes, gift shops, two galleries, a fancy beer shop and a (peculiarly high) level of hairdressing and beauty establishments. The bike shop is round the corner, we have primary and secondary schools and a three-practice GP centre and a train station. All of the 9000 or so residents of our former royal burgh are within a 10 minute cycle ride of these services, and yet the High Street looks like a car park and our streets crawl with vehicles.

Our High Street has a lovely ice-cream shop, but you’ll get a taste of petrol with your chosen flavour if you stand outside on the street for long. What could turn High Streets like mine from transport corridors where cars loiter to places that people want to linger?

Dunbar and surrounds, showing area within 10 minute cycle of the High Street

Spending so much time in the same few square miles has sharpened my focus on what I love about my town, but also on what I’d like to be different as we loosen lockdown and look to revitalise civic and social life, revive the economy and establish longer-term working patterns that protects people and planet. We need to recreate (and re-engineer) our town centres as places that care for people, that create space to linger, providing sustainable services that don’t cost the earth – and where walking, wheeling and cycling are the natural, safe and convenient choice for most, not just because of a public health crisis keeping cars off the road.

The Town Centre Action Plan Review call for evidence might have slipped under your radar as Spaces for People and related consultations have drawn most of the active travel attention. Despite some years as a cycle campaigner, I confess I’m a complete stranger to the Town Centre Action Plan. Having found it I wondered if the Town Centre First Principle guidance letter got lost somewhere on the way to East Lothian because all I can see springing up is out-of-town development.

Question 8 in the public survey asks ‘What could be done to improve local town centres’ and this will be my response – my Ten Tenets for a Ten Minute Town:

  • Pedestrianisation – it creates the space needed for people to distance and provides an experience that encourages to lingering; business owners consistently overestimate how much trade comes from people in cars but you can’t argue with this:
  • Reprioritise private car parking spaces – for car share vehicles, taxis and disabled drivers that need that access protected, and on-street, secure cycle storage for town centre flat dwellers and short-term cycle parking for shoppers and visitors.
  • Reallocate road space – to accommodate networks of separate and protected space for walking, wheeling and cycling, keeping everyone safe in their space at the pace that works for their needs
  • Designate on and off street loading bays and a significant investment in wheeled trolleys and the time to use them – to reverse the delivery driver priorities that create pavement, cycle path and double parking and the excuses that go with them.
  • Create happy homeworker services – even if we are allowed to go back into offices, it seems that most of us would just rather not do it. Invest in co-working and meeting spaces, provide high quality digital connections and be prepared for people wanting to spend time and money in the community that they live in if you create the right environment
  • Nurture a local wellbeing economy with the places and space we have available in our towns – incentivise the green, healthy and fair so that our small cycle shops can flourish with confidence, local food growers can provide quality produce on an affordable budget and it makes sense to repair and reuse (and not reorder) because the means to do so are on the doorstep and available to everyone
  • Repurpose empty shops into integrated logistics hubs where cargo bikes deliveries can take the strain for those that want their High Street shopping delivered to their doors – it will reduce car journeys and associated pollution and congestion and protect those that need to stay at home.
  • Create attractive and accessible places and spaces that don’t require a financial transaction to use them – benches, pocket parks, play space – so sticky streets aren’t just for those that can afford to sit down but for everyone.
  • Develop accessible transport hubs – that will loan you a bike, non-standard cycle or mobility scooter to suit your individual needs, a helping hand to get onto a train or bus without pre-booking and point for local leisure and tourism information
  • Join up your policy and implement it – Town Centre transport measures need to be in tandem with housing development, which is currently in-built with car ownership as standard, so that you can walk, wheel and cycle from your doorstep into the new and more sustainable normal. Build nothing that looks like this:

The Town Centre Review call for evidence is now closed but the public survey is open until 30 September. As the philosophers Moloko said so emphatically ‘the time is now’ – get responding and tell the review group that the future of our town centres shouldn’t be motorised.

Space for Everyone

Dear Cllr Innes and Ms Patterson

Firstly, I’d like to thank you on behalf of my family for the work that you and colleagues are doing to ensure the safety of East Lothian’s population during the Covid19 crisis. I know you must be working around the clock to protect our elderly and vulnerable residents, ensure that our schools continue to provide education online and maintain all the lifeline services that are so desperately needed.

Now we have adjusted to the immediate crisis situation, we are already thinking ahead to a world beyond the lockdown; we know there will be different challenges as people try to re-establish connections with friends and family, get back to work and education within continued social distancing restrictions. It’s vital that decisions are made now that will safeguard residents, and reduce our impact on the NHS, over the coming months.

I’m writing to ask you to consider measures that will create and maintain safe spaces, particularly in our towns, for people as we start this next ‘new normal’ for the following reasons:

Air pollution will impact those already most vulnerable to Coronavirus

During lockdown there has been a reduced level of motorised traffic, and consequently reduced levels of air pollution. Evidence suggests that our shielded communities and most vulnerable residents are likely to be at more risk if air pollution starts to increase, with emerging evidence suggesting that Coronovirus could be transmitted in pollution particles. This new information only adds to the body of research that shows the negative impact of air pollution on human health.

Maintaining low levels of motorised traffic will be vital in enabling our most at risk residents to come out of isolation. In addition, there is evidence to suggest that low levels of car use has enabled more people to cycle safely for essential journeys, as well as their daily exercise, which will have a positive impact on all our health and wellbeing.

Additional space is required for those with impaired mobility to have equal and safe access to services

Decades of land use decisions have lead to prioritisation of motorised transport in our towns and cities, with limited street space dedicated to pavements and separated cycle lanes. Whilst this has always been a challenge for people that walk and cycle for transport, the need for social distancing means it is now particularly difficult for people that use wheelchairs, older people and blind or visually impaired people. Whilst we all have responsibility to be considerate and reduce the risk of close contact we do now need reallocation of road space to provide more room for safe walking, cycling and wheeling, particularly in town centres and along popular leisure routes.

We risk exacerbating existing socio-economic inequalities

It’s true, as the First Minister stated, that ‘we’re all in this together’, but it has been widely recognised that we’re in the same storm, not the same boat; we know that those who are already most disadvantaged will have worse outcomes from this crisis. We know that women and in lower income households are more reliant on public transport, which may carry an increased risk of infection if we do experience a ‘second wave’. Families without adequate space for children to play, people with no private outdoor space and families that do not have access to a car will benefit from additional safe public space to exercise and access services within walking, cycling and wheeling distance from their homes.

Towns and cities across the world are using temporary measures to enable key workers to cycle safely, and others are already looking at a road reallocation revolution instead of returning to ‘normal’.

There are no silver linings to this crisis, but enabling more people to walk and cycle safely, accessing shops and services without the need for a private car would be a long-term benefit to people in East Lothian.

It’s been reported that traffic is starting to return to our roads in some areas of Scotland, and it’s certainly felt that way on my regular cycle routes between Dunbar, Haddington and North Berwick this week.

I appreciate that you have competing priorities, limited resources and are no doubt worried for your own families as well as our communities across East Lothian. But now is the time to act on measures that are preventative and will make a significant difference to the health of our population in the weeks and months to come.

Yours sincerely, and with very best wishes to you and your families

The Forup Family

Normal 2.0

We’re still carrying on here with the aid of cycling and cake but, in the spirit of adaptation to new circumstances, are bringing gin cocktails in to the equation to welcome the weekend and set sail to our beloved Scottish islands – if just in our imagination.

There has been a two week ‘Easter holiday’ respite from the outpouring of Google Classroom, so one source of anxiety has been in abeyance at least, although trying to manage a child whilst conducting back to back Teams meetings probably wasn’t particularly well received by any of the parties getting half my attention. Always late to a party, I’ve developed a deep appreciation for audiobooks and particularly the varied works of David Walliams; his daily readings have provided light relief and distraction for at least one member of our household, although it has unfortunately increased the discussion of bottoms, toilets and associated fluids.

Obviously I’ve got nothing but the C19 version of first world problems; this beautiful and reflective blog by a GP in Hackney details the inequalities that the current situation is compounding better than anything else I’ve read. The daily tweets from Nursing Notes rip at my heart as I carry on avoiding the storm that is taking the lives of so many that already have a life of public service behind them.

The interweb is full of posts about adjustment to ‘the new normal’, a phrase that I’m completely over, despite it being just a few weeks old (see also furlough, social distancing and flattening the curve) as it seems an understated sanitisation of activity that incorporates working from home alongside the ever-present spectre of death. I’m glad to see the proponents of using the ‘great pause’ for self development have been shouted down by people suggesting that getting dressed and not drunk by 10am is a win.

Just four weeks in, and no real end in sight, and the commentary about what we don’t want to get back to has already started. There are no silver linings in a crisis that is costing so many so much, but it’s clear that we don’t want to go back to what was our normal. I’ve seen calls for ‘build back better’, but we need to ensure its not just improving the seating arrangements on the Titanic we were on. A just recovery will require a complete revolution in how we use our resources, for the benefit of all and not the few, in alignment with planetary capacity.

It’s probably no secret that my contribution to almost all issues, local to global, is that cycling is probably the answer. However, I’m well aware that asking our local authorities to do anything other than cope with providing essential services to the most vulnerable could be seen as insensitive. But looking at our streets it’s never been more clear that space allocation is set to prioritise the movement and storage of metal boxes, and not people on foot, bicycle, scooter or wheelchair.

If we don’t act now we risk coming out of lockdown straight into carmageddon and back to its negative impact on our long-term health.

My Twitterverse is an avalanche of the emergency responses other countries are making to provide more space for safe walking and cycling, and the long-term opportunities to create better cities that enable activity and access for all. I know those conversation are happening in Scotland, but we all need to play our part in supporting our politicians and officials to make choices now that will create the path to the future we want.

Pedal on Parliament are calling for #SpaceforDistancing, as enabling people to choose walking and cycling as lockdown ends will be vital in safeguarding the health and wellbeing of communities across Scotland. Out on our daily exercise yesterday it didn’t take long for my mini-campaigner to suggest pavements and footpaths around our town that aren’t adequate for safe distancing. Rest assured we’ll be practising our handwriting skills on this topic shortly.

It seems like there’s no time to waste, and reaching out to our decision makers is vital, but we also need to remember that there is a person behind every public sector and political social media account and email address, a human that is also worried about the future. They could be fearing for their key worker partner or scared that their parents won’t see the other side of this crisis. They could be covering for unwell colleagues, or simply overworked in our strained public services. In our passion for progress, let’s remember to be kind too and try to be the people remembered for compassion in a crisis – not just critics.

Show me the money

Over the next few months Transport Scotland will be putting together a list that will be the focus of transport investment over the next 20 years. The catchy titled ‘Strategic Transport Projects Review (STPR) 2’ is an opportunity for Scottish Government to put its vision for a carbon neutral Scotland by 2040 where it matters – in the budget.

As part of the decision making process Transport Scotland are asking us to respond on an online survey, detailing issues about everyday journeys and satisfaction levels with different transport modes. My lovely work colleagues have put together some guidance to help supporters complete the survey, particularly in identifying the five strategic priorities that would make a difference to travel choices in the future. 

I consulted thoroughly with mini-campaigner over cake and ginger beer, and the following are our five priorities with some examples of where more work could be concentrated to achieve Scotland’s vision of a fairer, healthier and inclusive country. 

Design and build a high quality walking and cycling network

Invest in separated cycle lanes on urban main road routes and shared paths in rural areas, forming a high quality, safe and attractive walking and cycling network across Scotland for everyday transport and leisure journeys – designed with communities and ensuring that it’s accessible for everyone.

We know what has influenced significant modal shift change in other cities around the world and Edinburgh and Glasow have started to learn from it. They have shown the political leadership and resolve to transform, often in the face of criticism and outright abuse.    

Ensuring that place based approaches to transport for our cities is vital, but many of us live, work and visit outwith our two major cities and we need safe, connected and viable sustainable and active travel options too. 


This is our local National Cycle Network route, where the shared use path comes out onto a road that is also used by motorised traffic coming straight off the A1. The Local Authority is slowly improving the route, but it’s piecemeal, as funding and capacity become available. More investment in strategic walking and cycling routes will have direct economic benefits, as well improving the health and wellbeing of locals and visitors alike.


Our islands are some of the most wonderful places to explore by bike but last summer in Orkney we found there were few appealing options to avoid the fast A965 to get from Kirkwall to Stromness. Concerned locals suggested putting mini-campaigner alone on the bus, rather than attempt even the shortest section of the main road on bikes. We chose a long detour, put on our Big Girl Pants for the couple of final miles, and I aged several years in the process. The local authority has this route on a plan, but without funding that’s where it will stay.


Close the gaps in the walking and cycling networks we have

Invest in the construction of the short links that communities have already identified, using compulsory purchase powers if necessary and provide capacity and resources for local authorities to deliver and maintain them.

The Drem Gullane Path Campaign deserve cycle campaigning’s highest honours for their patient, persistant and pleasant 14 year effort to try and get a path between their two villages. At this rate I will have overseen the growth of a small clump of cells into an adult human before they get the four mile link they need to avoid walking and cycling the dangerous main road. It should haven’t to be this hard should it?

In my own neighbourhood a new cycle path has been built, linking new houses to a supermarket and a safe route to our primary school. But the section under the railway bridge belongs to Network Rail and apparently they are happy that it’s a mud bath, likely to prevent many people from attempting to walk or cycle and encouraging them to jump in the car.


Make walking, wheeling and cycling attractive, safe, convenient transport options in our towns and cities – for everyone

Invest in a programme of street audits, focusing on street clutter, pavement conditions, tactile paving and crossing with funds for repair, upgrade and replacement – reducing conflict by ensuring that pedestrians and cyclists have clearly defined spaces that are safe and protected from motorised traffic.

Last year saw a revolution in my thinking about how we design our cities and communities, coming late to the news that our cities and towns exclude many of the most vulnerable, including the blind and visually impaired, wheelchair users and people that use bicycles as mobility aids. 

We need to ensure that safe space for cycling doesn’t compromise the needs of pedestrians; our #5GoMadInFrance adventure last year gave us a glimpse into what happens when you mix pedestrians and cyclists into crowded spaces amidst the bustle of a global city – elderly ladies shouting ‘Paris merde!’ at you in the street in frustration and anger

Radical assessment of barriers to integrated, accessible transport – implementing a suite of measures to enable transport modes to support increased active and sustainable choices for everyone

Invest in expertise and infrastructure to enable easy and affordable interconnectivity between walking, wheeling and cycling and onwards journeys by bus, train and ferry.

I was looking at some old cycle touring photos recently and it occurred to me that getting my bicycle on the 08.56 train from Dunbar is now more difficult than it was strapping my bike to the top of a bus in Tamil Nadu. 

You can read about my frustrations with trains from five years ago and unfortunately it’s not got any better. I’m looking forward to the new carriages operating on the Oban line and hoping that this will inspire a revolution in bike-train integration.

If you think accessing public transport with a cycle is difficult you should follow Dr Amy Kavanagh, Gregory Mansfield and Lady Grey-Thompson in their daily challenges to simply go about their lives independently. 

And whilst I’m here I think making all train stations accessible for blind and visually impaired people would be a good too:

Ensure that sustainable and active travel is prioritised from the start of all new developments (housing, health, employment) and reduce the need for travel, particularly via unsustainable modes 

Invest in whatever the hell is needed to join up our regeneration, place, climate, health, environment, equity and transport agendas and actually implement our policies on this stuff.

Can you tell I’m frustrated at this stage? We have the talk, now let’s do the walk.


Viking Biking

sign: pay attenttion, children playing

There are two ways to do Christmas, according to my husband, the Danish Way and The Wrong Way. Only he’s lived in the UK long enough to not actually say this out loud and has instead ensured that Christmas in Denmark is my preferred option through means of stealth.

So it’s the third year running that I find myself in my husband’s childhood home over the Christmas holidays, cocooned in the hygge created by my father-in-law and enjoying a week of candle lit conversation, unlimited reading time and glorious quiet, interspersed with solitary bike rides and herring focused meals with my tall and bilingual relations.

Denmark is famous for its cycling levels, and people often assume that my husband and his relations must all spend their lives cycling or thinking about it. They don’t, of course, and for many Danes a bicycle is the transport equivalent of a domestic appliance and warrants about as much interest. Cycling in cities like Copenhagen is simply easier, cheaper and more convenient than the alternatives.

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Arrived! #copenhagen #christmas #cyclinglife

A post shared by Suzanne Forup (@backonmybike) on

For the overseas cycle campaigner Copenhagen offers a unique insight into a city that continues to improve its facilities for cycling, locked into a battle with Amsterdam and Utrecht to be recognised as the world leader, resulting in most of my city photos looking this this: 

It’s fascinating city to cycle around and the first time is like entering an alternative universe that gives you the required energy to go home and keep fighting for our own version.

Whilst some of our family live in the big city, we usually stay 30 miles away in rural Zealand, surrounded by fjords and endless sky. Out here in the sticks there are not swarms of Danes battling through snow on their cargo bikes, loaded down with Christmas shopping. There are not swarms of people to start with and every driveway has a car or two, but there’s still evidence that cycling is a real transport option within and between towns and villages. 

Between bringing my own bike and my sister-in-law donating hers, I’ve had a bicycle for the holidays each year, so I’ve been able to get out and try to ride off the roasted duck at my leisure between family gatherings. 

Coming from a town in rural Scotland that can barely manage a pavement outside the town, it strikes you immediately here that there are clearly signed shared use paths everywhere – a rural walking and cycling network that connects towns and villages to schools, shops and public transport. My father-in-laws village has 300 people in it, but has paths in most directions and more planned next year. There is always priority over cars at side roads and it’s rare to find yourself moving from a separated path out onto a busy road with no cycling infrastructure to keep you from the motorised traffic. 

There are other signs that cycling here is a real and integrated transport option, with cycle racks at bus stops and cycles allowed inside the bus itself. Culture lends a hand too, with signs in the street at the start of the school year reminding drivers to expect children that ‘are new in traffic’ as the expectation will be that most children will be cycling to school. Like the UK, there are ‘children playing’ signs, but these are backed up with speed restrictions, not just hope. 

Nowhere is perfect of course and on my rides around the peninsula I’ve seen some poor infrastructure too, with paint instead of protection and some untreated paths and less than ideal roundabouts. It’s also increasingly obvious to me that the pedestrian environment, particularly for the blind and visually impaired, is inconsistent and disabling. At least that leaves Scotland with an opportunity to be a world leader if we really want communities that are inclusive, empowered, resilient and safe.




People make change

I’m surrounded by people that want change; my social media feeds are a deluge of things that need changing, from road layouts to entire nations, political leaders to our economic, food, farming, education and transport systems. I’ve even heard that there is something terribly wrong with ginger beer that needs changing (back).

Change is inevitable, difficult and can happen both at a glacial pace and whilst we are asleep. Whilst some of us are demanding it in one direction there are forces moving against it in the other and everyone has ‘facts’ to support their claims.

Just over three years ago I squeezed into a cold room with people I didn’t know and started a journey of change with them to try and transform the mental health services in our area. Only I didn’t know that at the time as I thought I was there to become a more effective cycle campaigner. Our joint work started by enabling unheard voices to be felt in a system that seemed designed to keep them quiet, and I began to see the power in simply speaking about our experiences and listening to other sides of the system.

Back in that cold room in the autumn of 2016, we were all there to participate in Ulab, an online course that promised an introduction to ‘leading profound social, environmental and personal transformation’. The words in the introductory film resonate now more than ever in this Brexit/Trump/Johnson era: “we live in an age of profound disruption, where something is ending and dying and something else is wanting to be born.”

As an election looms in the UK and we wait for something to emerge, I’ve been thinking about what I’ve been learning from my seat in the maternity ward:

Nothing changes if we don’t change

“Yesterday I was clever so I wanted to change the world, today I’m wise so I’m changing myself”


Transformation. Disruption. Change. They were the words that had enticed me into Ulab. I wanted to create change. I didn’t realise that the biggest change would be in me, and that’s what had to change first. It’s hard learning to listen, being prepared to change not just our positions but ourselves in the process. Reflecting on my privileges and prejudices is still in progress and I’m not done yet. This year of WalkCycleVote work with RNIB Scotland has provided the uncomfortable opportunities I needed to learn about life in different shoes and then help others discover what that means for their own campaigning.

A slightly more contemporary commentator than Rumi, Darren McGarvey, in his brutally brilliant “Poverty Safari” tell us “the new frontier for individuals and movements who want to radically change society is to first recognise the need for radical change within ourselves”. It doesn’t mean we don’t give up the fight against systemic injustice but we have a duty to reflect on our own actions too and assess if they are helping or hindering us.

I’ve seen shouting ‘the truth’ at people on the internet to be as effective as shouting ‘calm down’ at my child. If we stop shouting at each other and ask what the problems really are we might find something out.

Find the joy, create the spark, start a fire

In some of my breathtakingly judgemental sessions on cycle campaigning I talk about the need to change traditional cycle campaigning with its whiff of beards, blokes, sandals and grey haired grumpiness. In reality I’m profoundly grumpy, as well as supremely angry, so I can hardly suggest that being a beacon of delightful positivity is the only way to progress. But there is something about the notion of joy that attracts and motivates, bringing people together to create change and turn from apathy or acceptance. We can often band together in a crisis, but it’s building with a positive purpose that is sustainable. Creative campaigning, highlighting what works and the occasional thank you for something good keep us motivated, finding some eye catching fun in otherwise dreary conversations about road widths, kerb heights or correcting everyone about road tax.

Innovative spaces like the Firestarter Festival can enable conversations that create sparks, opening a door to transformation and an opportunity to try our new approaches without commitment.

Between the bots and fake news, social media can help us present another world; our #FiveGoMad in Amsterdam ’roundabout film’ produced a burst of positivity that kept Claire’s notifications buzzing for weeks, creating conversations that another rant about the shocking conditions for cycling in the UK doesn’t. In these despondent times some hope in the dark goes along way and can open doors you don’t know exist.

Comrades and camaraderie

Like the solitary change-makers that went before her, Greta has shown us the individual action can have a profound impact. Showing up and speaking out are fundamental in creating change, particularly if you speak out for those that are silenced and enable others to find their voice.

But to stay the distance, and find the joy, most us will need comrades, friends, collaborators, partners or co-conspirators to plot and plan (and pedal) with. We create energy and ambition when we dream together, but it’s sharing the workload with people we don’t want to strangle when we’re under pressure that ensures we’re able to simply carry on. I’m blessed with several sets of collaborators in my life, bringing the light and lightening the load. They sustain me and our shared purpose ensures we keep responding to the likes of Strategic Transport Projects Review 2, organising events and reaching out to policy makers with our new comrades in disability organisations.

Do what you can, not everything that can be done

Advocating for change is hard, and some activist self care is critical if we’re in the long haul. What is wrong in the world can seem overwhelming and the desire to correct can be strong, particularly when lies and deceit seem to start from the places where we should be able to put our trust. In the face of the rising, global tide of hatred and the impact of austerity fighting for protected cycling space seems irrelevant sometimes. But we all have to choose our fight, for what we want to put our time and energy towards, and I’ve chosen the thread that brings me joy.

Seeing is believing

A group of people talking at a crossing

Just before Christmas I went for a walk that changed everything I thought I knew about how we design our streets for people, because I went for that stroll with someone that was blind. I heard a little a little about how tactile paving enables visually paired people to read the street, and how vital controlled crossing points are in enabling the most basic level of independence – the ability to cross the road safely. But what changed my world view was seeing how some street design, including cycling infrastructure, can compromise the safety of people with sight loss.

As a cycle campaigner I’ve been used to being the most vulnerable, the least heard and the most right. My working relationship with RNIB Scotland over the last six months has taken me on a learning journey and it’s been uncomfortable and challenging, testing what I think of privilege, equality and inclusion when the changes required might mean giving up my own power and privilege.

I still have a lot to learn, and I thank colleagues at RNIB Scotland for the patience and humour as I’ve asked stupid questions and found some answers difficult. It has not been easy to learn that some of what I have been campaigning for prevents people with sight loss from reaching bus stops safely. Hearing from Sandra Wilson, the Chair of RNIB Scotland, at each of the Cycling UK/RNIB fringe events this spring about the challenge of trying to get along the street unmolested by bin bags, wheelie bins, overhanging plants, pop-up cafes and A-boards left me in awe at the strength some people have to muster simply to leave the house.

People with sight loss need to be able to get around safely, just like everyone else expects to do. As I’ve been discovering through ”Invisible Women”, the world has been designed primarily for the needs of the Default Man – and he’s able bodied. As our urban realm develops to encourage walking and cycling we need to ensure those changes benefit and include everyone.

In the last few weeks I’ve been spending time, alongside my #walkcyclevote collaborator Sally Hinchcliffe, with visual impairment activists on the streets of three of our cities to examine the infrastructure more closely to try and understand our shared needs as well what is problematic. The RNIB have detailed information about the needs of people of sight loss from all forms of transport here but my cycle campaigner summary is:

Trust is good, but control is better: controlled crossing points are the Dutch separated infrastructure of the sight loss community – the ability to stop the traffic enables visually impaired people to ensure that it is safe to cross. Unless the other road user is a complete arse. Zebra crossings are like the painted cycle way version; when I asked one activist how she used a zebra crossing she responded with “I put my stick out and hope that I don’t get run over”.

Sharing isn’t caring: shared space – a phrase that can set even the most mild mannered raging before you’ve even tried to define exactly what you mean. It’s used to describe a range of situations where two or more of cars, pedestrians and cyclists mix together in a space that isn’t differentiated by kerbs or other road markings. Can be confused with shared paths, shared pavements and shared surfaces.

Kerb Nerd alert: people with sight loss love kerbs as much as we do, and that’s something to celebrate. Cane users and Guide Dogs use kerbs to help determine where pavements end and a road begins. The Kerb Nerds will pleased to know that there is a whole loads of height and angle chat to enjoy together, particularly when you involve wheelchair users.

Not floating boats: floating bus stops – these are bus stops with a cycle path running behind them to prevent cyclists going under buses. Unfortunately they can brings together several of the points above in a frightening combination, even where some efforts are made at tactile delineation. Bicycles are silent, bells are often unused and it can be hard to hear anything coming towards you over the roar of city traffic, even if you can hear. Crossing a cycle track behind a bus stop is like crossing a road and we need designs that are safe for cycle users and pedestrians.

Car-free isn’t carefree for all: We live with the tension that cars are a vital mobility aid for some, but their dominance of our streetscape reduces the land area we have to allocate to pedestrians and cyclists. Celebrating car free streets can show we disregard the needs of others and gives fuel to the perception of cyclists as anti-disabled. This isn’t a good look and prevents people seeing disabled people as cyclists, which they are

Both sight loss activists in Edinburgh told me that they wouldn’t go to Leith because it’s inaccessible to them, and a similar story was heard about other places and streets in each of the cities. If we forget all the problems about denoting particular types of people as ‘indicator species’, should the proof of inclusive street design mean we see a wide range of disabled people independently and safely use the whole of our cities?

The wonderful Daisy Narayanan quoted Maya Angelou at a presentation last week about the Edinburgh City Transformation Plan and it resonated with me: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” I hope that I can.


“We live in a time of massive institutional failure, collectively creating results that nobody wants” Ulab co-founder Otto Scharmer tells participants early on in the Theory U journey; he’s talking about global economics, politics, climate change, poverty and terrorism – the ingredient list for a planetary disaster recipe. As someone that regularly uses a bike it’s not hard to see urban street design in the failure cake we’re baking. All our policies talk about sustainable transport but our walk makes it clear where the power and investment has been.

We all want safer streets, reduced congestion, better air quality and communities where our children can play and roam freely yet we keep inviting more cars into our urban realm and expecting the results to be different from the ones we’ve seen before.

Its easy to feel despondent, just as it’s easy to blame the Council, the Government, developers, car drivers and sometimes the people that think 99% the same as you but not quite that last 1%. What’s hard is to engage openly, to act, to listen, to empathise with different view points and to change our minds when given new evidence. Sometimes its hard just to find the energy to have the conversation at all. We’ve seen that shouting ‘look at the Netherlands’ at politicians on Twitter is not having much of an impact, presenting evidence against bikelash agitators can produce a ‘fake facts’ standoff and powerful stories of change get dismissed as anecdotes. Short of taking everyone in Scotland on a weekend break to Utrecht, how can we give people a taste of what a people centred city might look and feel like?

If you can’t see it, you can’t be it: re-imaging the city

Officially, the Fire Starter Festival “is a two-week festival of collaborative learning events, illuminating creative, disruptive and innovative ways in which we can all transform ourselves, our organisations and the wider system” but it was sold to me when I heard it was all about “doing unusual things in unusual places and getting away with it”. I interpreted this as doing something naughty and not getting told off because the First Minister said we could do it.

Inspired by the Enrique Peñalosa quote “If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for everyone” we started thinking about road closures, play streets, street design competitions, film-making workshops with schools and forcing a ciclovia on Princes Street through the judicious use of toilet plungers and soft toys. Ultimately, our combined time and resources (close to nothing) meant that we settled for creating a pop-up park right outside one of Edinburgh’s most iconic Scottish Government buildings, St Andrews House.

Originally conceived as a legal method for reclaiming part of the street, and making a comment about how street space is utilised, pop-parks (or parklets) give a sense of how we could use our city streets if they were not consumed by the storage of cars. One of its originators has called it a gateway drug for urban transformation, which would explain why some Local Authorities have tried to prevent them.

Outside St Andrews Day, on a bright but bitterly cold February afternoon, we had a programme to tempt people into our park. Musicians played, Dr Bike got out his spanner, people skipped, poetry was chalked across the walls and there was **not a Council entertainment license in sight** (yes, that’s the extent of guerrilla action that this former Head Girl can really take).

Six organisations, all part of the We Walk, We Cycle, We Vote collaboration, spent the very cold afternoon day dreaming with people about how our cities could be different. We didn’t change the world but we had conversations with passers by about not using our capital city streets as a parking lot, we chatted to the St Andrews House inhabitants about placemaking and punctures and we talked to each other about how we could work more together, sparking a few more fires that we hope will turn into a convincing blaze that people will see, feel and want for themselves and their communities.