Liberté, Egalité, Velocité - 5 routes to a cycling revolution

As Le Tour begins, Mark Perryman offers up a transitional programme for a green socialist cycling revolution, one that goes beyond the familiar.

Mark Perryman
3 July 2019, 11.40am
Liberté, Egalité, Velocité
High Tisdale/Philosophy Football

July, the month when since 2012 first Wiggins, then Froome, and last year Thomas, turn Le Maillot Jaune into Le Maillot Britannique. Or in Thomas’ case Le Maillot Gallois. And off the back of this, a surge in cycling – or not. According to the latest figures Department for Transport’s figures only 6% of the UK population cycle at least once a month, just 1% of primary school children and 3% of those at secondary school cycle to school. Overall, only 4% of Brits are daily cyclists, the third lowest in Europe with only Cyprus (2%) and Malta (1%) cycling less than us.

Once again, it seems to be a myth that elite success (whether in Le Tour, Team GB’s hatful of gold medals in the Olympic Velodrome, or the cycling world championships coming to Yorkshire in the autumn) has an impact on popular participation. Yet cycling not only helps generate a healthier population by getting us out of our cars (the same data revealed that the average length of a car journey is 8.5 miles) – by cycling, we can actively reduce urban air pollution, reduce reliance on fossil fuels and decarbonise the economy. Le Maillot Jaune won’t achieve any of this, but La Révolution might. Trotsky once offered up a ‘transitional programme’ from capitalism to socialism. Mine is a tad more modest – from four wheels, to two.

1. No VAT on bikes

A signature move would be to remove VAT on bicycles. A 20% cost reduction isn’t to be sniffed at, and uses tax gathering as a tool to actively shape lifestyles. That’s something that will be required more and more by any government seriously committed to a sustainable economic strategy.

2. Socially useful bicycle production

The spate of car factory closures over the last few years is unlikely to slow down. Consumer habits are changing, though sadly it’s not that car-drivers are driving less, but that they’re driving existing models for longer. The urgent need to upgrade every couple of years is coming to an end. And electricity is coming to replace the petrol in the tank. Good, but if the electricity doesn’t come from renewables, while town air pollution may be reduced, the impact on climate change is debatable (the same applies to E-bikes, of course). Those car factories could be taken over by the state, and used to churn out cheap but well-made bikes. Rather than front-wheel suspension, which is entirely unnecessary for the vast majority of journeys, lightweight steel is what improves the quality of any ride. Focus on this for a line of nationalised, not-for profit children’s and adults bikes. Those centres of car manufacture are unlikely ever to recover, certainly not on the scale they once had, but what if they became centres of bike manufacture?

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3. Bicycles on trains

Eight and a half miles isn’t a bad standard to aim at. Of course many car journeys are considerably less, so there’s no need to aspire to Le Tour standards straightaway. Most of us, depending on any hills getting in the way, could do those 8.5 miles in a shade under an hour. In big cities that will be quicker than by bus, and no wait for the next train either. But for some the journey to work is considerably longer. Why then does commuting by train actively discriminate against those who’d take a bike to complete the journey? Often the only ones permitted are the expensive ‘2nd bike’ option, the fold-away. And at the weekends it’s no better – a ride in the country for city-dwellers is made all the more difficult because the train ride to get there has next to no space for bikes. None of this applies on the continent where it is not uncommon to find entire carriages given over to cyclists and their bikes. New train design in the UK has failed to address this – indeed, we see the total opposite, with ever-decreasing provision for carrying bikes.

4. A bike shed for every workplace

OK, 8.5 miles is going to leave most of us a tad sweaty, and for all-weather cyclists, quite possibly soaking wet and caked in mud too. It’s no way to start the working day. Every workplace needs to be kitted out with a bike shed, a changing room and showers. Central and local government should set the example in their offices, but tokenism isn’t enough. How about ensuring this is included in planning regulations for new workplace builds, along with interest-free grants for all existing workplaces to add such cycling provision?

5. The cyclists’ road to socialism

In the early years of socialism ‘Clarion Clubs’ of socialist cyclists would take body, soul and the message for change from city to countryside. A late 1980s version was the annual Oxford to London Nicaragua Solidarity bike ride that thousands would take part in every year. But cycling is a culture largely absent from the Left nowadays – except to point out that far from being ‘frail’, Jeremy Corbyn regularly commutes from Islington to Westminster by bike –

4.5 miles according to my road map. Yet mass cycling events could provide the means and confidence to generate the day-to-day ride as a matter of course. Such events are hugely popular, organised by commercial outfits for the major charities. But it’s promoted as a day out, entirely disconnected to any ambition to transform the way we live our lives and consume the world’s ever-decreasing resources. A left cycling culture could help generate instead what the writer Lynne Segal has described as moments of ‘collective joy’. A day out yes, but with a world, not just a wheel, to change.

I could add, of course, safer cycle ways and paths. These are certainly needed; fear remains a major impediment to the revolutionary growth in cycling to our individual and collective benefit I am advocating. Yet the overwhelming emphasis on cycle ways, to little or no substantial change, serves only to produce a self-fulfilling prophecy. If it’s that dangerous, which it isn’t, and nothing is being done about it, which it hasn’t, why bother? Like any decent manifesto for a revolution mine is the advocacy therefore of hope, not despair.

Liberté? Yes. Egalité? Of course. Velocité? Why not – for a future driven not by profit or an economic system driving our planet to destruction, but by ourselves. A Révolution in anybody’s language.

Out just in time for Le Tour. Philosophy Football’s Liberté, Egalité, Velocité T-shirt is available from Philosophy Football

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