Ewen Maclean – 7th April 2022
Campaigning at grass roots level can be a joyful and rewarding community experience, but can also be very dependent on the time and energy of dedicated volunteers. In this article we present a specific community event – the bike bus – designed to address the climate crisis and the health crisis resulting from sedentary, car-centric lifestyles. This is aimed at facilitating wellness and a better future for our children, especially given the recent incorporation of the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) into Scottish Law. How can we exploit these events to bring about structural social change for the better of all in our community? Here we document the steps we have taken in order to move from a community event to bringing about concrete progress – these consist of
- Political awareness
- Designing structural changes
- Documenting evidence and statistics
- Engaging the community
What is a Bike bus?
We at Blackford Safe Routes – the travel group of the Parents’ council of James Gillespie’s Primary School – have been running bike buses in our local community from the catchment area to the south of the school since the beginning of 2019. A bike bus is an event where we ride together as a group with adult ride leaders to enable kids to cycle safely to school on roads which would ordinarily be too dangerous. Riding in numbers and as a group provides a safety and a fun way to get to school for the kids. We copied the model initially devised and run in Edinburgh by Sciennes Primary School who also continue to run theirs. Since we started ours various others have started around Edinburgh and across the UK, including the excellent Shawlands Bike Bus recently featured here, with many building from guidance which Cycling Scotland provided about how to run these events:
The benefits to such a community event are manifold, societal and well documented:
- Facilitating a safe environment for less confident cyclists to travel actively to school
- Reduced air pollution around the school
- Greater attentiveness through exercise with both physical and mental benefits for the children
- A greater sense of community and collective parenting by sharing the outside space with others
- The opportunity for older children to model more sustainable active travel choices to younger children.
Blackford Safe Routes Bike Bus – photo by Andy Catlin
The evidence from the bike bus shows that uptake of cycling increased due to the bike bus, and that even some adults felt that riding together provided enough safety to enable them to do the school run by bike when the roads before were prohibitively dangerous, and prevented them feeling safe enough to cycle.
Next steps to structural change.
This article is not being written purely to extol the virtues and benefits of active travel and community events. On the contrary, such events are fragile as they are volunteer led and not structural. It is vital that such events can be used to demonstrate to politicians and everyone who sees them that change is possible and demand is high, but that what is imperative is strong political will for structural change. The bike bus is a stepping stone to providing real, safe routes to school for all those who want to walk, wheel or cycle and leave their cars at home. There are various steps that could be taken in order to make fundamental change from events such as the bike bus, but here we show concretely what we did and what can be done to move a volunteer led community event to a movement bringing about real structural change.
- Make politicians aware.
We went to the council with kids from the school who regularly participate in the bike bus in order to show what it meant to the future generation to feel they could actively travel to school in safety. They were able to present to the Transport and Environment Committee as a deputation how they felt and answer questions from councillors. During this meeting we were able to get a motion proposed by Green Councillor Claire Miller that Bike Buses be supported by the council. In concrete terms this meant the council agreed to use its resources to override some light signals to allow the group to pass through as one, and facilitate the opening of otherwise locked gates for example. A number of bike buses throughout the city started up pre-covid including some which had multiple routes. The increasing number and confirmed support from the council meant that it became a more common sight and more drivers were aware of what they were and able to respond accordingly.
- Design future plans
For the catchment area around our school, we designed a “Liveable Neighbourhoods” plan based around the very successful notion of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods as demonstrated in areas like Waltham Forrest and Hackney in London. You can see our plans, which are based on various principles around the Transport Hierarchy, and preventing through traffic in residential neighbourhoods, meaning traffic on those streets is invested in the area. We presented these plans to the council along with traffic analysis studies and were able to use the bike bus as evidence for the latent demand for children to travel safely to school.
Liveable neighbourhoods redesign of area incorporating school catchment and bike bus.
- Present existing evidence and make available.
We also made a web page of documents with easily accessible evidence to present to councillors about the popularity of the safer streets. Politicians will want to know that there is a voter base willing to vote for them if they support your campaigns. In our case there are startling statistics from existing Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs). In Waltham forrest before modal filters and other more people-centred measured were introduced, residents in support of the liveable neighbourhoods numbered around 50% – since the schemes have been in place, approval ratings are around 97%. In Hackney 82% of those fined for going through modal filters with access restrictions with ANPR cameras were from traffic passing through the area. These are vote winning statistics and should be repeated very often. You can see the set of resources we have collected here:
Concretely we supported the use of “try and modify” techniques such as modal filters, which can be planters. These are relatively cheap and can be implemented with Experimental Traffic Regulation Orders (ETROs) – these documents should be made available and disseminated widely and the benefits of these measures made clear.
- Engage your community to write in support and make it easy for them.
Councillors will act on what they feel best represents the community. In our case we are fighting for better communities, but in particular for the future of our children. Children tend not to write to councillors in support although if possible of course this can be very powerful. It is vital to get positive messages to the council from those that support, and to allow the children to have a voice. When consultations go ahead we provide pages where parents with little time on their hands can easily send messages in support.
It is the job of grass roots movements to effect structural change and to design pathways to do that. If you believe, as we do, very strongly in your cause – in this case the future and wellbeing of our children and communities as a whole – then do not engage in futile discussion with those that vehemently oppose you. The majority of people will not have a very strong view necessarily, and if you believe in what you are doing then concentrate on reasoned debate to change the hearts and minds of those people. In our case we have a clear objective which is to fight for a quiet and safe route to school for the children, and we are concentrated on that. It is a good idea to have that objective and not to dilute too much with other causes, however worthy, and to build support from successes you achieve.
If you’re interested is setting up a bikebus, or campaigning on behalf of your local community, check out the Common Weal campaign centre where we’ll be listing courses and materials from the end of this month. It’s a community space designed for you to promote your groups and ideas.