Friday, 24 August 2012

The importance of emailing your local councillors with 'Write To Them'

Perhaps the most important reason for starting a blog like this would be to try, even if it is only in a very little way, to do something concrete to make cycling in London safer and better. So here goes. This post advises (a little) action:

A few weeks ago while trawling the extremely worthwhile 'Cyclist in the City' blog (@citycyclists), I came across this link: http://www.writetothem.com/.

I dutifully followed the link, typed in my postcode, and wrote to my councillors, my London Assembly Members, and my Member of Parliament, sending all three quite a similar email asking for better cycle infrastructure in my area and better Boris Bike provision. What surprised me was that within about two weeks all of them had personally replied to me (or at least got their PA to send me something if they were over 60 and clearly did't understand emails); and even if they weren't quite in agreement with my suggestions, they had at least read them and were happy to engage in a back-and-forth email 'conversation' with me over the issues in question.

A politician like Julian Huppert (LibDem MP for Cambridge) needs to be reassured by the electorate (i.e. you) that his pioneering concern for cycle safety is extremely popular with the electorate, and will only become more so as cycling rates across Britain continue to increase.




Clearly they were all, at some level at least, interested in my opinions, even if all I represented to them was a name and address at the bottom of an email. So I tried to put myself in the politicians' shoes and work out why they were taking the time to email me back.


For a start, since all local leaders are democratically elected I, at the very least, represent one vote. And that's probably worth keeping. But there's more to it than that. If I've gone to the trouble of emailing my local politicians I could well be a floating voter (since in the next elections I might just vote for whoever I percieve as having the best cycling policy rather than saying "I'm a Tory" etc.). And, of course, in our 'first-past-the-post' system, floating voters are the the ones that really count.

Furthermore, if I've gone to the (even though it is comparatively minor) trouble to send an email, I'm probably more politically active than the average resident. In fact, I may well talk about local politics with politically-apathetic friends in the run up to a local election and perhaps influence them to vote for whoever sent me the nicest email the year before.

So there's actually quite a few good reasons for local leaders to listen to their residents when they contact them using a service like: http://www.writetothem.com/.

Moreover, as I have argued elsewhere, making cycling safer and more popular in London are both incremental inter-linked processes; we should realistically be aiming for a Cycling Evolution instead of a Cycling Revolution. In this context, anything you can do which incrementally increases support for cycling groups at a government level is a good-thing-to-do.

Especially since so much of town planning is a compromise, there's a real opportunity here for achieving solid incremental improvements (in a way in which there isn't for an issue like the Iraq War, where Britain was simply either going to go to war, or not go to war). For instance, say a local leader is considering a difficult decision about extending a cycle path on a road or in a park near you. There are clearly arguments either way. If he/she gets 5 emails the week before asking for better cycling infrastructure that might just tip it. And it is these kind of incremental improvements that cyclist should be aiming for as well as bigger changes (e.g. the redesign of Blackfriars Bridge that LCC have rightly proposed).

What Blackfriars Bridge could look like. More info from LCC.

Furthermore, now is the perfect time to persuade local leaders to devote more money/road space to cyclists. Not only do more cyclists cycle in summer anyway. Not only have there been consecutive year-on-year increases in cycling rates in London for the last decade. But most importantly we've just seen the major cycling success of British athletes in the Tour de France and at the Olympics, and everyone is asking about an Olympic 'Legacy' and how the government could fulfil this ("how about cycle lanes?"). To top it all off, we've got the Paralympics and then Bradley Wiggins racing in the Tour de Britain in September which will ensure that cycling is kept firmly in the public's imagination over the next few weeks. In short, cycling at the moment is as close to political gold-dust as it has ever been. If local leaders are ever going to listen and be persuaded, they'll be persuaded now.

Bradley Wiggins destroying the Olympic Time Trial race, and, in the process, generating massive amounts of political good will, on the part of the general public, for Utility Cycling.

Do these local leaders have any influence? Yes. Unlike other political issues such as the Iraq War or Fiscsal Easing, Cycling Infastructure is an issue which can only be implemented with a national, mayoral, and local impetus. (Okay, I know the national impetus side of things could be greatly improved by that's a separate issue I've discussed here). After emailing the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea suggesting the installation cycle lanes on Holland Park Avenue for commuters coming in through Sheperd's Bush from West London, I got this reply from Kathryn.King@rbkc@gov.uk

'We are awaiting plans from TfL regarding their next Cycle Superhighway which will run down Kensington High Street.  That, and pressure from the Mayor, may well have an effect on our cycle lane policy but I’m afraid that at present our Councillors do not support segregated lanes in the carriageway.'

Even though there is clearly a distinct mayoral pressure here, it is not enough unless there is also local support. At the end of the day, local support is essential to achieving good cycle infrastructure because local authorities have such a big say in deciding what gets built in their area and how road space is divided up.

A politician like Kate Hoey (Labour MP for Vauxhall) needs to be told by the electorate (i.e. you) that completely neglecting the very real needs of her constituents for safer cycle infrastructure in South London is deeply unpopular and will lead to her losing her seat in the next election, especially with cycle champion Simon Hughes MP reigning in neighbouring Southwark.

Therefore, because they could well listen, and because now is the best time to persuade them, and because persuading them would make a real tangible difference to the cycling conditions on the streets you live in (since BoJo unfortunately can't run London as a cycling dictator), get onto http://www.writetothem.com/, get involved, and get persuading your local Councillors so that they do 'support segregated lanes in the carriageway'. I believe it's always best to express yourself in your own words, since then politicians are much more inclined to believe there is real grass-roots support for better cycling infrastructure (which there clearly is).

In your message I'd recommend - if I may be so impertinent - at the very least asking your local leaders to (1) improve local cycle infrastructure in line with best international practice (esp. Holland - we're talking protected cycle lanes, more cycle park spaces etc.), and as I've already argued here, (2) either get Boris Bike Docking Stations in your area, or if they are there already, get the existing Docking Stations expanded, and lastly, (3) improve the current Boris Bike tariff by making the first 60 minutes free to registered users.

There are over 11,000 people currently following @londoncyclist on twitter. That's a lot of people interested in cycling in London. If anywhere near 11,000 emails found themselves in our local leaders inboxes tomorrow morning then we would certainly see more real local improvements to our cycle infrastructure, and by happy consequence, to overall cycling levels too. So, to my mind, its worth doing.

http://www.writetothem.com/

(comments welcomed)

P.S. If you want to do even more to make an active difference you can also write/email (as I have done) the following people:

- mayor@london.gov.uk (although Boris may not personally read this...)
- Your local MP through this slightly different contact detail: http://findyourmp.parliament.uk/
- Your local council using the 'contact' section on their website.
- The Parks administration to get them to improve the current cycle infastructure in Hyde Park, Regents Park, Green Park, St James Park etc. (Email: hq@RoyalParks.gsi.gov.uk)
- TfL using the contact section of their website or email LondonStreets@TfL.gov.uk
- BCH Scheme using the contact section of their website or email BarclaysCycleHire@TfL.gov.uk
- Signing the LCC petition to 'Love London Go Dutch': http://lcc.org.uk/sign-go-dutch-petition.
- Signing up to your local borough cycling group. Easy to find: just put '[Borough name] cycling' into Google.