When lobbying government actually makes sense.

You know what I find so infuriating about armchair urbanists, my (former) colleagues in academia, and the bicycle advocacy community? It’s this idea that legislators should listen to them, not their voters. So they lobby. How lazy! Lobby the masses. The politicians will follow. I’m in the process right now of sidling up with a like minded corporate sponsor to help me do that—but more on that some other day.

Is there any occasion though when it makes sense to go straight to government to lobby for a new law or order? A new book doing the rounds  War: What is if Good For? has triggered a thought. (Disclaimer: I’ve pawed it in the bookshop and listened to the author on the radio, but that’s about as far I go with any book really).

The book argues that groups of humans, if they didn’t have policing regimes looking over their shoulders, would pull guns on each other at the slightest provocation. As in days passed we would each have a one-in-five chance of dying through violent attack. The benefit of most wars throughout history is they have brought warring clans together. Coalitions become regimes and establish police forces thus giving people much lower odds of dying through violence.

Our regimes are not doing much though to protect us from a violent death on the road. I don’t need protecting from heart disease, cancer or stroke. I’ll do what I can to improve my odds for myself. And I’m happy with my odds of being shot—even in America I’ve got less than a one-in-three-hundred chance of that happening. It’s the one percent chance of being killed on the road that causes me to wonder if this nation is in the hands of legitimate forces.


I don’t mention it much on my blog, because I’ve never met anyone with same point of view, but my personal reason for not owning a car and for raising a family with bikes, is I’m not satisfied than owning a car, and getting use from it, is at all safe. You’re safer just owning push bikes and navigating the world via bike routes and trains. Most people haven’t survived two serious car accidents (as I have), or if they have they lack the imagination to see how they could be cyclists, so they accept this fate for themselves and their children. I won’t. It’s easier accepting the inevitability of war than accepting the one percent chance that I will die in a mess of bent steel, or the four times greater chance of tragedy if I could my wife and two kids in the figures.

When put in the position of lobbying government, the strongest appeal you can make, is for your life to be spared a violent death that they gave you no way to avoid. If we can each have unbroken webs of safe cycle space in our cities, we can cut out that risk. See it as a bonus that in the process we would each better our chances of dying from heart disease, the number-one killer. (Source for odds-of-dying stats in this blog post.)



  1. jqr10001 says:

    Dr. Behooving, thank you for your informative blog post. This is an issue of which I am well aware,, since posting about it 18 months ago, so I’m glad to read your take on the issue.

    When advocates set infrastructure as their number one priority, that means that their number one priority is to petition the authorities, not to get more people on bicycles.

    You fail to mention just how unpleasant it is to lobby the authorities. The process involves long arduous meetings without food or drink (if you stand up for your rights and refuse to call weak watery percolated coffee a beverage) listening to other people talk about how their way of life is betrayed by every single person riding a bicycle.
    And in the end, as you point out, the results are the same, because the authorities will listen to the masses (at least on a straightforward topic like making it easier to get around on a bicycle). And it’s a lot more fun to convince other people about the excitement and joy inherent in bicycling, because you can do it while bicycling, then when you need to recharge, you can drink beer together. No beer at government meetings.
    It’s my secret theory, you see, that the lobbyist type of advocate actually doesn’t give a hoot about bicycling because when you confront him or her about how much fun it is to ride you get lectured about how people in godforsaken Denmark ride around as if it was nothing special at all. The benefit to society, those advocates argue, is all in second-order effects about making people kinder and getting communities back on track and giving kids a reason to live and providing owl habitats. Performing bicycling technique in a fun way, in a wind-thru-hair way that makes you excited to tell someone else about it, is apparently infra dig to these advocates.
    So while those benighted advocates are sitting around in nursing home activity rooms, reading about Leon Trotsky and waiting for another meeting to begin, I’ll be on two wheels, bringing bicycle joy into my life.

    • Steven says:

      Hyperbole. Exactly! A timely reminder as I put some finishing touches on my next manuscript.
      Hey you weren’t in the 5 Boro bike ride per chance?

    • Nik Dow says:

      For some years I’ve been directing my advocacy and that of groups I’m in in exactly this direction. For example, one of my websites is http://bikefun.org where you can find fun rides to do with like-minded people. At http://www.freestylecyclists.org our mission is to change the perception of helmet law from a good idea to a stupid idea, so that as you say, the politicians will follow.
      The problem however is with those people whose “way of life is betrayed by every single person riding a bicycle”. The politicians are listening to them, as you say. Consequently we don’t get the infrastructure that would convert some of those intolerant bigots into cyclists. If our ecological position as cyclists is hopeless, no amount of “do what I do, use a bike” social engineering is going to work.
      The only circuit breakers I can think of that might change this dismal situation are:
      1. a binding international treaty on carbon emissions that we can’t meet because converting to electric everything is only going to overload the electricity network which still relies on coal, and gas and we can’t build enough renewables fast enough.
      2. The price of petrol goes up by a factor of 10 (but note that algae can produce crude oil at about twice the recent peak cost and that’s before it scales up).
      3. We are lucky enough to score a visionary politician with enough authority to push through changes despite the bigots, such as Bloomberg in NYC. Clover Moore in Sydney tried but was defeated by the State Government bigots. Melbourne isn’t trying. Boris started late in his mayoralty but has now moved on and the Labour replacement is anti-bicycle. Probably the congestion charge introduced by Livingston made it possible by increasing cycling without infrastructure improvements and now it’s reached a stage where it’s unstoppable.
      BTW your page design makes it impossible to submit a long comment like this one. I had to hack the CSS.

      • Steven says:

        I’ll have to have a look at the settings. There may be some work limit that I can lift. Thanks.
        I didn’t know about the algae! The mayors you’ve named all used cycling as a cheap way to fix gridlock. There are some other fronts to work on as well 🙂 The property development sector and bike industry stand to profit, and they have powers they’re not even aware of.

  2. jqr10001 says:

    Dr. Behooving, the 5-boro ride is a misery. Most of it is highway riding, which is ridiculous as highways are not very interesting to ride on as a bicyclist; there is nothing to see. I did it once, happened to be at the tail end, and when I got to near my house, I just turned right and went home.
    Disagree about New York City mayor Bloomberg’s bicycle policy being intended to fight gridlock. If you read enough of the cover letters in the Transportation Department’s reports from that era, it’s clear that the intent was to make the streets more attractive for a wider range of street users than just motorists. The Times Square redesign is the textbook case study; desirable area, filled with motor vehicles, sidewalks were jam-packed. So they took out half the motoring lanes and replaced them with plazas, now the area is accessible to people who just want somewhere to sit and be bewildered by giant LED signs.
    But this place-by-place concept didn’t do three things: it didn’t establish a bicycle lane network that would provide any kind of minimum protected-lane quality level throughout the trip, it didn’t address fraught areas for bicycling like the Queensboro Bridge or Williamsburg Bridge entrances on the Manhattan side, and it didn’t remedy the crummy safety record of delivery bicyclists who remain the silent majority of bicyclists in New York City.
    Yes, my comment too is obliged to be shorted because of the page design.

    • Steven says:

      Okay, must check those settings. Point taken re congestion (you bugger up a simple narrative I like to tell clients!!) Point taken too about highways, but it did work for me! I rode most of the second half flat out by myself pretending I was picking lines in a sprint finish as I overtook swarm after swarm. I really think I’ll be a much better sprinter for this experience. As for scenery, well, I know there are parks and gentile streets the ride should take in, but I took a perverse fascination with the rusty bridges and highways lined with detritus. I glimpsed the tawdry lives of car owners.

    • Steven says:

      Sorry, can’t change the settings on the maximum length of readers’ comments, which is odd since one would expect bloggers to find regular readers who are verbose too. Though there was one setting I saw that restricts comments to 17 syllable haikus… crazy!

  3. jqr10001 says:

    Dr. Behooving, are you speaking of this last weekend’s 5-boro debacle? You came all the way to NY and didn’t mention it on the blog? I certainly would have ensured you didn’t have to pay for beer, and lent you a bicycle.
    The comments don’t have a hard limit, but after a certain length the window does not get any bigger and the Post Comment button disappears.

    • Steven says:

      Sorry, it was a super-packed couple of days. Just writing a blog post about it. Next time! You can introduce me to your part of town and/or join my David and I on our little cycling adventures.

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