The attitude remains that cycling campaigners should respect the law and the police despite being constantly presented with evidence that the proper order of things actually consists of completely expelling cyclists, pedestrians and other uncontrollable elements from the carriageway.
This attitude aligns with a fundamental understanding of ‘the road’ as a place where everyone’s interests are equally respected by the powers that be, and a view that our safety would improve if everyone followed the rules.
This belief is anachronistic especially when compared with the rest of cycling campaigning, which is generally very switched-on to social justice, focused on being effective and making changes in the real world. Is this reluctance to rock the boat with regard to the law holding us back in meeting our aims?
Prefigurative direct actions, like painting a zebra crossing on the road, literally ‘picture a situation beforehand’ – they bring a desirable situation into being before the state has acted on it, and in so doing both provide an immediate solution and push the state to act.
They’re a great campaign tactic because they have this dual purpose: saying to your neighbours ‘what if you could cross safely here?’ and physically showing the council what you want them to build.
The drawback is, some prefigurative actions are illegal. A fear of breaking the law, or of ruining relationships with the local police force, shouldn’t stop cycling campaigners from taking the actions we need to push our campaigns forward.
Climate actions for transport
A spicy new global campaign has emerged from the climate movement: bands of ‘Tyre Extinguishers’ go out at night and let the air out of SUV tyres. They leave leaflets on the windscreen to explain why – and so that the driver does not try to move the vehicle before reinflating the tyres.
Those who support this form of action claim it is relatively low-risk, fun and has an immediate impact. There is no permanent damage to the car. The need to reinflate the tyres is an inconvenience, which will ‘nudge’ the owner to buy a less harmful model of car.
Unlike the prefigurative zebra crossing, tyre extinguishing is more like pure disruption than provision of new infrastructure.
Despite jarring against the structural focuses of both movements, these no-damage sabotage actions against individual cars have their merits too, as they go directly to the source of the danger (cars), and reduce their ability to harm. They make the ubiquity of on-street parking a vulnerability, rather than an asset.
Although its impetus has come from climate activism, it is transferable to cycling and walking campaigns. From the climate side, these are exceptionally polluting cars; and from the cycling side, SUVs have a redoubled impact on the urban environment, cyclists and children.
Although cycling and walking activists are often motivated by a need to stop climate change, the climate movement has, in recent decades, not been focused on transport goals.
While centrist climate activism is about individuals’ energy consumption, left-wing climate activism has, correctly, focused on energy production.
It has made divestment demands on multiple attack points – central government, fossil free campaigns on university campuses, pension funds and shareholder activism, and protests at banks.
It has targeted energy production at its source, through climate camps at power stations, Germany’s significant Ende Gelände camps, and January 2023’s actions at Lützerath, focused on coal mining.
The climate movement’s focus on energy production is fantastic and necessary, but it means that it has been developing on a different trajectory from active travel movements, leaving the former without a clear argument against cars, and creating tensions, such as that over HS2, or over electric cars in their early days.
It’s positive to see a productive tactic which unites the two movements in their hatred of SUVs, but the framing would be slightly differently if taken up by cycling and walking activists.
Although the idea started in 2019, the number of Tyre Extinguishers increased in 2021 after Andreas Malm showcased them in his latest book, How To Blow Up A Pipeline, as a tactic to “make the ownership of these cars effectively impossible”.
From an active travel campaign perspective, rather than a climate one, the goal would be to ‘make the use of these cars effectively impossible’ – as an SUV which is owned but never leaves its private garage is neither here nor there.
For this reason, the recent Bristol spray painting action “THIS MACHINE KILLS KIDS”, while being a true message and probably costing the owner more to remediate, doesn’t make as much sense as the Tyre Extinguishers’ action, because it doesn’t stop the car moving.
Another spray painting action, in Leigh, near Manchester, painted “MOVE” on a row of cars parked on the pavement. This is a powerful exhibition of the rage pedestrians feel – and is reminiscient of the radical Reclaim the Streets action of physically pushing cars off the pavement in 1995.
As one of the protestors said: “This is direct action that the police should be doing, not us.”
But many activists feel that if the ultimate aim is to stop people using SUVs, rather than just making the owners angry, then Tyre Extinguishers get closer, and quicker. Or, as cycling activists often say, “paint is not protection”.
Transport tactics for transport goals
I posit that we should use transport-related tactics for transport-related goals. So far, left-wing movements have used transport-related tactics for all sorts of causes, but not much to do with transport.
The most famous of these, the Critical Mass cycle rides, are now for fun only, and while specific mass protest rides have been organised to make points on other issues, like civil liberties (the London 2012 Critical Mass ride is exemplary), and Bikes Up Knives Down, this is not common practice among cycling campaigns.
Only the Kiddical Mass demos of the last few years are specifically aimed at cycling goals. Kiddical Mass is a family-oriented mass cycle ride, happening in cities around the world for the last few years, with a list of demands for cycling infrastructure.
The website states the progressive aims: “The vision of Kiddical Mass is that all children and young people can safely and independently use cycles as a mode of travel.”
The benefits of the mass ride tactic in this case are showing that children can physically cycle, but it’s the hostile road environment which prevents them from doing so normally.
When Insulate Britain protestors chose to block roads for their weeks-long campaign in October 2021, they followed the best practice playbook for methodologically sound disruption: they chose logistically important sites and times of day, blocked strategic roads, and had simple, economically-just demands.
But what’s interesting is that despite the clear messaging from the group, literally called “Insulate Britain”, the standout memory from that campaign is the transport implications.
Despite Insulate Britain’s goals having nothing to do with transport, the tactic of blocking roads brought transport into the frame, as the harshest violence against Insulate Britain protestors was from other ordinary people who had been held up in traffic by the protests.
Videos show drivers pulling protestors from the road by their ankles, they calmly walk back into the road and sit down again in front of the cars.
Most famously, footage of the “Range Rover mum” who “nudged” protestors with her SUV, shifted the conversation’s focus onto driver entitlement, the ethics of SUVs, and to some extent, ‘road rage’.
The extreme emotional impact on drivers of being prevented from driving for a few minutes couldn’t help but drag the conversation towards transport issues, so think how powerful transport-related tactics could be if they were used for transport-related demands.
The simple, humorous ‘Just A Minute’ protests in California could be a good entry point for UK cycling activists – they hold up drivers while a car is stopped in the cycle lane for ‘just a minute,’ to allow cyclists to safely overtake it’.
And the group claim success: after a few days of the video appearing online, the local authorities “released an update a few days later declaring that fully protected bike lanes will be installed on Valencia St. by the end of the year.” These lanes are now visible on Google StreetView capture.
Blocking roads by ‘playing dead’ in them is an old tactic – whether it’s against the Health and Social Care cuts Bill, or outside Westminster on the eve of the vote to bomb Syria in 2015, these were real issues of life and death.
But when this tactic is used by cycling campaigns, it takes on a different resonance. Campaign group Stop Killing Cyclists argue for protected space for cyclists at junctions, by blocking junctions where there has been a recent death, recalling the past as well as pre-warning a grim future.
The few times that London Cycling Campaign has blocked roads, it’s been at Holborn junction in London where eight people have died and 13 people have been seriously injured since 2008.
Malm suggests timing the sabotage of oil infrastructure to take place just after a major climate event, when public sympathy will be at its highest: “Next time wildfires burn through the forests of Europe, take out a digger”.
Cycling activists have no shortage of tragic events at junctions to take advantage of. As a tactic, blocking roads has meaningful urgency for cycling activism specifically, because it pauses life as usual by stopping the very traffic that harms cyclists.
It is, as Dalia Gabriel says, “really important for your tactics to communicate the politics of what you’re doing, to target and to frame themselves around the story of power that you’re trying to tell.”
The story of blocking roads goes ‘the way we live now cannot continue, so your journey cannot continue’.
Balancing ends and means
One of my favourite active travel direct actions is the Make The Lane demonstrations, occurring on main roads where exceptional numbers of cyclists have been killed and seriously injured, and arguing for physical protection on the cycle lane.
Make the Lane protests consist of a human-protected cycle lane, where a group of fellow cyclists stand with their bikes along the painted line of the cycle lane, and ‘make the lane’: forming a barrier of human protection for cyclists using the lane.
They’re prefigurative, illustrating now the infrastructure needed to protect cyclists in the future, and in that very act making the argument for its construction.
Another demonstration of solidarity in vulnerability is the Lewes Road Bike Train, which ran daily group rides to the university campuses in Brighton, from 2010 until they succeeded in convincing the council to construct a partially-segregated cycle lane along the road, over two years later.
It’s a time-intensive tactic, requiring committed and reliable volunteers, a problem some of the recent Friday group rides to schools, have run into.
As with any struggle, success is by no means guaranteed: Make the Lane locations still have unprotected cycle lanes, and despite London Cycling Campaign’s numerous petitions, plans, and meetings with council officials, the grand total of change at Holborn junction has been only a partial win.
But what’s valuable about prefigurative actions is that they’re productive of safe conditions for cycling or walking in the meantime, so even if they don’t achieve their goals, they have at least achieved something.
There’s a risk, with productive actions, that they will actually be so effective at providing an alternative that they become a replacement for state action, and in fact a justification for state inaction – for instance, food banks ‘solving’ food poverty.
But for active travel activism, it’s unavoidable that campaigns make demands on the state, because there is only one road network.
We can’t set up our own alternative, independent roads like we could an alternative energy source, or food source; you can’t go off-grid with transport.
By necessity, active travel campaigns’ prefigurative tactics directly affect existing allocations of physical space. This may frustrate drivers, but when the state is taking too long to act on our demands, sometimes we have to make the safe infrastructure ourselves.
It’s depressing to read about Reclaim the Streets movements in the 1990s, because they’re making the same arguments over 25 years ago as cycling and walking campaigners are now, but the situation we’re in now in climate terms is much, much worse.
The fact that some activists have given up decades of evenings to writing detailed consultation responses, doesn’t mean they’re not trying hard enough, it merely means they have been repeatedly defeated by forces stronger than the movement.
Getting some basic cycling or walking infrastructure built in the UK is like getting blood from a stone. Malm raises the question, “at what point do we escalate?”
That means using conventional lobbying tactics including meetings, petitions, consultation responses alongside other more ‘direct’ tactics.
Conventional groups sometimes feel turning to non-violent resistance will sour the tenuous relations they have built with state institutions like local councils and the police, and so are reluctant to break the law or cause disruption.
Jack Shenker suggests that a ‘respectable’ wing of a movement can rely on a more radical wing “to make themselves and their demands appear more palatable to powerbrokers.”
So, if active travel activism adopted a careful strategy, a new programme of direct action could, far from jeopardising the good favour of the council, provide it, in Malms words, with “a little unrequested assistance”.
There’s more than one way to make demands on the state, as well as asking nicely, and I’ve discussed a few types of direct action here: prefigurative infrastructure, sabotage of vehicles, and mass rides and demonstrations.
As well as being useful for achieving campaign goals, taking physical direct action as a group can be wonderful for group cohesion. Cycling regularly together is already a very common part of cycling activist groups, for the purposes of socialising, to demonstrate to themselves the empowerment of cyclists in numbers, and to collectively note gaps in infrastructure.
But to go one step further than this, organising a direct action where you all use your bodies together to make a political point, requires a closer affinity to make sure everyone feels safe.
Some cyclists feel that they already make a political point with their body every day just by cycling. But through planning and carrying out an action together, everyone learns how to act as a caring group: like by moving towards any aggressive drivers to provide a denser crowd, or checking that your buddy is okay during a roadblock.
These principles don’t just make the actions work better, they also mean everyone in the group knows they can rely on the others in the group – for the length of the action, and hopefully beyond that.
So we can take a lead from climate activists’ care for the earth, and think of the process of caring for each other as an investment in the future, especially in the uncertain world of a changing climate.
Pearl Ahrens is a transport planner and an active member of London Renters Union and London Cycling Campaign.