On calling time on being an (at least exclusive) active-travel campaigner

It was with a very heavy heart earlier this week that I broke the news to the WalkRide GM steering group, and even more painfully to the members of my local WalkRide Prestwich & Whitefield activists’ group, that I would be stepping back from active-travel campaigning for an indeterminate period, essentially on grounds of burn-out after spending the best part of a decade fighting councils and car culture. Having had a few days to contemplate the matter, I am convinced that both the decision and the timing are right. So pray indulge me in a brief retrospective of my journey to this point and an outlook on what may come next.

Beginnings: GMCC & its legacy

Looking back, the cycling landscape in (Greater) Manchester, while still light years from perfection, has changed in myriad ways for the better – both politically and physically – since I first started attending meetings of Greater Manchester Cycling Campaign (GMCC), in the early 2010s. Back then painted white lines were still considered state of the cycling-infrastructure art and broader concerns about e.g. air quality, congestion and climate change were far from the mainstream of political discourse. Under the stewardship of its boundlessly energetic and intellectually incisive newly elected chair, Jonathan Fingland, GMCC worked hard to radically change that.

Addressing the participants of the ghost bike vigil for Artur Ruszel who was killed while cycling in Manchester, February 2015. Photo courtesy of GMCC.

For instance, one of the first initiatives I was involved in was to convince Manchester City Council (MCC) to abandon the grossly ill-conceived Prestwich City View Cycleway, a proposal for a meandering, hilly route between Victoria station and Prestwich that essentially doubled the distance compared with the direct, on-road option. MCC acquiesced and ploughed the money instead into the largely agreeable Oxford Road Cycleway, which for many years was the best and only “Dutch-style” cycle track in the whole of GM.

This approach was a paradigm shift in cycle campaigning in the region: no longer would we settle for any old shite bearing a bike symbol, instead we would only accept high-quality, safe, continuous and direct infrastructure schemes that catered to riders of all ages and abilities. Building nothing for cycling/walking is better than building something half-arsed and tokenistic – and likely also dangerous – a concept that many boroughs in the region and beyond still struggle to appreciate.

At the Mobike launch, July 2017.

As GMCC’s press officer it was my job to get the topic of cycling for transport into the media & thus the public consciousness and I did so through regular interviews in press, radio & TV, learning as I went that I’m actually a decent communicator and can withstand even tough questioning in a live situation. Indeed, one particularly aggressive radio interviewer came round the console after the interview to shake my hand on how well I fielded his deliberately prickly questions. This is a skill that is worth knowing one has.

Star of the big screen: live TV interview with North West Tonight at Media City, August 2017.

Ultimately GMCC’s greatest legacy flowed from its efforts to ensure that cycling (now encompassed by the term “active travel”) was a key issue in the 2017 Greater Manchester mayoral elections. The intense lobbying paid off and the ultimate winner Andy Burnham made sure that one of his very first acts was to appoint Chris Boardman, Olympic gold medallist turned passionate advocate of everyday cycling, as the region’s first Walking & Cycling Commissioner (now Transport Commissioner as his portfolio has been expanded to include public transport). Under Boardman, Greater Manchester has adopted an ambitious vision for an integrated “London-style” transport system incorporating affordable public transport and a safe & relatable walking & cycling network– the “Bee Network”. Having ventured into blogging by this stage, my write-up of Boardman’s design guru Brian Deegan’s approach to network planning was at the time widely regarded as the definitive account of his technique.

Being interviewed by the BBC World Service, September 2018.

As GMCC sadly petered out in 2018 due to the kind of internal frictions that so often plague small grass-roots groups, I remained an independent commentator on cycling matters in Greater Manchester and fulfilled a lifelong ambition of being interviewed on the BBC World Service on a programme about the demise of the Mobike cycle-hire scheme.

WalkRide GM & WalkRide PW

In the autumn of 2018 I was approached by Helen Pidd, who had recently staged a protest against “bike-jacking” attacks on the Fallowfield Loop and was exploring the option of setting up a more formalised campaign group to support Chris Boardman and the then incipient Bee Network (“Beelines” as it was initially called, before a trademark-based objection was lodged by the makers of the Beeline cycle navigation device. One may have thought that Boardman, whose name is literally a trademark for his popular line of bicycles, ought to have been a little more alive to IP issues… But anyhow).

Addressing the Funeral for the Unknown Cyclist, London, October 2018.

I documented the very first meeting of what ultimately became WalkRide Greater Manchester (WRGM) here, and the movement has continued to grow since that time. For the first two-and-a-half years or so, I both sat on the steering committee and also headed up the very first affiliated “hyper-local” group in Prestwich & Whitefield, which formed from a keen group of activists who had coalesced following a public meeting held pre-WRGM in the Church pub in Prestwich.

Addressing the Great Ancoats Street Swindle demo, June 2019. Photo courtesy of WRGM.

At steering committee level I reprised the media spokesperson role, speaking on radio, TV, in the press and even on podcasts about why active travel matters. I (semi-autonomously of WRGM) co-organised a large wheeled protest against the omission of cycle lanes on the proposed “European-style boulevard” that Manchester’s Great Ancoats Street ultimately and unsurprisingly failed to become following its £9 million revamp. I helped steer strategy and chaired open meetings, before laying down that role earlier in 2021.

TV interview on active neighbourhoods/COVID-related active travel measures on behalf of WRPW, January 2021.

My hyper-local group has been equally active in making the case for active travel not only in south Bury, but the borough as a whole. We successfully lobbied the Council to revive the long-defunct Walking & Cycling Forum and now have a regular platform for direct dialogue with the Council. We have taken politicians and officers out on cycle rides and “roams” to point out the highs and lows of moving around the neighbourhood car-free. We have started to create our own walking & cycling network map of the area to feed in to future development schemes and have vigorously lobbied the officer in charge of the coming Prestwich regeneration on the need to implement a low-car 15-minute neighbourhood concept fit for the 21st century. We have the ear of the Council and have presented to Council-related meetings as well as regularly contributing to consultations and lobbying individual councillors. We are currently applying for funds for an impactful publicity campaign to normalise active travel among parts of the population who may not normally consider themselves walkers or cyclers. There is much going on and, as ever, much to do. And people keener and fresher than me who, one hopes, will continue doing it.

Out cycling with WRPW member Martin and Councillor Richard Gold, the then Deputy Cabinet Member for Transport & Infra, July 2020.

So why walk away?

The problem with campaigning for anything is that it can become all-consuming. By its very nature, you have identified a wrong, an injustice, that you’re seeking to right in the face of public apathy, if not hostility, and political intransigence: if politicians already cared about it, it’d already be being done. So you’re by definition an underdog, facing a seemingly impervious wall of indifference and entrenched practices – and it’s bloody hard, with every even tiny victory requiring indescribable time and effort. Anyone who campaigns for anything can, I’m sure, relate to the slog involved.

The victories are of course important. The discourse around active travel is now mainstream. The awful community conflicts over for instance active neighbourhoods/low-traffic neighbourhoods, where the received wisdom of the primacy of the private motor car is challenged, are a painful symptom of any process of profound change – a process that is now underway. We no longer talk of “Dutch-style” infrastructure, but rather “Bee Network-standard” design in line with our very own Greater Manchester Interim Active Travel Design Guide. Cycleways are increasingly being built across GM, our innovative CYCLOPS junctions are making nasty intersections safer for walkers and riders. Even Bury Council routinely builds references to active travel into blurb about regeneration. All this is good. All this is progress.

But it has come at a cost. Earning my living as a freelancer has meant that I can approach campaigning with a flexibility less possible for those in real jobs with fixed hours. I can take a few hours, a day, a week here and there to dedicate to an interview, a seminar, a conference. On the flip side, it has also meant that I haven’t really developed my business for years: any extra organisational or creative effort gets ploughed back into the campaign and not my livelihood. In fact, it can often feel like a second job, albeit with no pay and few payoffs: on finishing my actual gainful work, I will have a stack of emails and admin to get through before I can consider myself at leisure. The line between a duty and a chore is a fine one, but I think I overstepped it a while back.

On a personal level, being so dedicated to – and indeed identified with – a single-issue cause has occasionally given me pause to wonder whether it risks rendering me one-dimensional myself. When asked how I am, few want to hear about the state of active-travel campaigning in Bury, though that’s often what has driven and exercised me the most a lot of the time. I only contact my councillors about this because I don’t want to dilute the message. Same with my MP. If an active travel meeting clashes with something fun, I will feel duty-bound to attend the active-travel thing and forego the fun. And after a while that really can start to sap one’s energy, resilience and commitment. It limits my getting involved in other campaigns, with other groups, let alone party politics – all so as not to jeopardise the campaign’s image and purity. Which is is fine until it starts to feel limiting.

In a word, I’ve done as much as I can for as long as I can, and that has to be enough, for now at least.

So what now?

As the self-styled “bearded gobshite on a bike”, I think it’s unlikely I’m just going to shut up, buy a Range Rover and start parking on pavements. This is now in my blood and will always be part of what I’m about. As intimated above, this may well, after a necessary period of reflection, entail getting involved in a broader area beyond active travel. Perhaps actual politics? I have honed and acquired a range of skills and experience that are well-suited to that arena, so never say never. Christ knows we need urgent change to the lumbering incumbents across much of our region.

But most critically, what I need to do is reconnect with what got me involved in this arena all those years ago: the love of the bicycle. Getting out there, having adventures and making wonderful memories again, which often feels like it’s fallen by the wayside.

So that’s where I’m at. Would love to hear any related thoughts or experiences y’all may have.

Peace out and thanks for everything. You’ve all been amazing.


12 Responses

  1. Joanne Neri says:

    Awe, you’ll be missed but you deserve a break after dedicating 10+ years to the cause and as we said on the tram it could well take another decade to see results. Happy Bikepacking 🚴‍♀️

  2. Hembo says:

    I’d vote for you.

  3. Completely understand your decision, Nick. All the best and thanks for sticking up for the things that make sense.

  4. Jonathan Keenan says:

    As you know I can 100% relate to this. The currency of activism is time. We are born with only so much and everyone just has to try to control how it is spent the best they can. There is a balance to be had between making-a-difference and living-your-best-life. The two are not exclusive but for many it is essential to take time out to reassess and rebalance these things. There is also something very positive about old-timers (yes that’s you now) stepping back. This allows fresh blood to bring new ideas and energy and filters out the cynicism that time in campaigning inevitably brings.
    I’m sure you will have plenty to give in the coming years and look forward to a pint in a pub any day soon to figure it all out!

    • Nick Hubble / Banging on about bikes says:

      Indeed, not only is it not a sprint, but a marathon – it’s also a relay race. As you hint at, over time one becomes increasingly irritable and impatient about the lack of progress, which can make one a much less effective advocate. Plus the whole landscape of active-travel campaigning has changed since the GMCC days – from simple bike lanes to today’s vision of LTNs and streets for all. New ideas and new skill sets are needed. The likes of us helped get the issue on the political agenda & it’s now for others to help deliver those changes. And a pint sounds good. Let’s sort something perhaps in the new year?

      • Jonathan Keenan says:

        I’ve always said that the veracity of opposition is inversely proportional to success and the anti LTN movement is a sure sign that active travel is slowly winning, not just by getting infrastructure on the ground but the hearts and minds argument as well. This success doesn’t stop it being incredibly draining to stand in the firing line of such opposition or even just observe it from the sidelines.
        However as people slowly accept that change is inevitable and necessary and there is no way it cannot impact on the current routine of their lives we will see the things we have long campaigned for become mainstream.
        New Year pint it is. Speak soon now doubt.

  5. Alastair says:

    Thank you for all your time and effort Nick.

    I’ve followed the active travel campaign since moving to GM in late 2017 and it took me about half an hour online to find your blog. I have an on-location job which does not offer the flexibility to get to early evening meetings etc, but it is thanks to you and a handful of others that I respond to consultations and email my councillor and MP and make it along to the odd event.

    All the best

    • Nick Hubble says:

      This is very heartening to hear, thank you. One thing that helped me make the decision is that there are now many folk interested in and commenting on these issues so it feels very much like it’s a case of passing on the baton. I’m sure you know the some of those people, especially if you’re on Twitter. Plus WRGM are excellent at pulling all the strands together.
      I’ll still be following developments on active travel and what not, albeit not with the intensity of a day-to-day activist. But also just enjoying cycling again more broadly – which is why I got into this whole caboodle in the first place! All the best.

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