Monday 5 August 2013

I am not a horse

When I was in primary school, in creative writing classes, my teacher always told us to never used the word "nice" - there were far better more descriptives adjectives available. Alas, this lesson was not heeded by Transport Scotland and the Scottish Government came up with their latest "Nice Way Code" campaign. Yes, #racistvan may be the main social media policy getting a backlash in the UK, but up here we have our own fine mess.

I've held off commenting until the "policy" was launched in full, but for some reason they had a soft launch last week. As I pointed out at the time:

Truly a policy launch could not have gone any worse. First of all, their press photo showed a driver breaking the law by stopping over a stop-line. After a day of full-on attacks on twitter from cycling and road safety campaigners they were forced to write this blog post about all of us "vocal people". Pretty swiftly the spoof twitter account had more followers than the official one, and it's been joined by a second spoof account.

Well the policy has now had it's official launch today. It includes this leaflet and these adverts. There has been a helluva lot of verbiage on the policy, brilliantly brought together here. I would particularly recommend the posts by Beyond the Kerb on the ludicrous advert and make sure you read the comments on this post where some of the policy-makers try and defend it.

I pretty much agree with everything that's been said, so what I thought I'd do here is offer some speculative policy analysis here. I'm going to focus on two areas: problem definition and "lines to take".

Problem definition

A key step in policy-making is defining the problem to be solved. In "traditional" policy analysis this is presented as a fairly rational process. My own research often focuses on how problem definition is a highly political act, especially in neighbourhood policy. Invariably, regeneration policy (particularly in Scotland) fails to recognise the main reason deprived neighbourhoods exist is that we put all our social housing in certain neighbourhoods (an argument I'll be making in a Fringe show next week).

Quite often analysis doesn't have to be quite as in-depth as it is in my usual research. The Nice Way Code is a case in point. The policy problem is we don't have enough active travel in Scotland. The Scottish Government has a target to increase the number of journeys by bike to a pitiful 10%. There are a whole host of reasons why we want more active travel.

The evidence from countries with very high levels of cycling, and from studies that ask people who don't cycle, is that safety is the main barrier to promoting active transport. Our roads are designed for big metal boxes that go fast and cause massive blunt force trauma to people when they hit them, quite often resulting in death, particularly for children and older people. As I've said before on here, you've got to be bloody stupid to be a vehicular cyclist in Scotland.

However, the Nice Way Code defines a problem where nine cyclists have been killed by drivers on Scotland's road this year as "not perfect" and where we just have to be "nice". It doesn't take a genius to work out why there might be a bit of dissonance between problem definition and the experience of road users.

Being fed sugar lumps is not going to make me feel much better after my internal organs have been rearranged by being hit by a driver going 30 mpg or more. I am not a horse.

Lines to take

And this brings me onto lines to take. For those of you who have the fortune not to be former civil servants, a "line to take" is what the UK civil service comes up with when a new policy is announced. I was a civil servant and was trained to always revert to the "line to take" that way you won't get in trouble.

It's fairly clear what the "line to take" with the Nice Way Code is: "we know the road's aren't perfect, but they'll be better if we just get along". Subject to the barrage of criticism, they've had to come up with another line to take: "it's only 1% of the total budget". If you scroll down to the comments on this blog post by Nice Way Code, you'll see that I was a victim of the line to take. Interestingly it seems that they've now shut down comments, but just so you know, in response to their last comment to me, government can convert revenue expenditure to capital expenditure, and regularly does. It can't do it the other way round. The Scottish Government even tell you how much local government does this.

The problem with "lines to take" is really revealed by this policy. To get this problem, you have to know a bit about the UK civil service. In this book the political scientist Rod Rhodes uses ethnography to reveal how the hierarchy of the UK civil service means that ministerial office is like a Royal Court. This very much chimes with my experience of the Scottish Government. You are accountable to the Minister, not parliament. The minister is turn accountable to parliament. This is why "lines to take" are used - you cannot speak to the political and policy priorities of the government, all you can do is "objectively" implement them. So you fall back on your "line to take" so you don't actually have to have a view.

This means that once a policy has been decided (and often before) you cannot have a public discussion about the policy. It embeds the "decide and defend" approach in the policy process. As a result, it seems the Nice Way Code is in lock-down mode. It's only posting positive stories about the policy. It is no longer engaging in debate. Even comments on the videos on youtube have been locked down.

And what really frustrates me is it is an utter waste of money. I've put a ministerial correspondence in asking what research was used to come up with the campaign (I have an inkling it was a The Thick Of It style back-of-fag-packet job) and whether a cost-benefit-analysis was carried out, or similar. I await a reply. 

Like Beyond the Kerb, I do recognise that attitudes of road users have to change, but I was also expecting, hoping, for something like this Irish film:

Or, given the extent of the problem, even something hard-hitting like the Scottish Government can do:

Instead, I get a video which my partner excellently summed up as "so, they're asking drivers to treat cyclists that they see all the time, like something they hardly ever see and that they don't treat with respect". I am not a horse. I am a human being and I don't want to be killed by a blunt force trauma to my body. I want decent cycling infrastructure which I have seen implemented very cheaply and easily in Germany, and even better infrastructure in the Netherlands. The infrastructure has to come first to deliver modal shift.

The bit of the Nice Way Code blog post where they comment:

"A lot of research was conducted to develop the campaign, all of which told us keeping the tone light, speaking to all roads users equally and having messages for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians was the only way to get people to consider changing their own behaviour."

Is very telling for me. This has come straight from the stable of "nudge" policy. In an era of austerity, where politicians are terrified of taking bold decisions that might alienate voters (who are middle class and drive cars), policy "research" is reduced to PR not actually what works.


  1. Peter,

    That's a good post that sums up the problem.

    I've contributed a fair amount to the slagging off of this approach because it annoys me so much, even though I haven't lived in Scotland since leaving in 1997 (I was brought up in Glasgow).

    The problems with the Nice Way Code campaign are pretty similar to some of the problems I see for cyclists where I live now in New York City and in London, where I lived until a year ago. The problem has many of the characteristics of a civil rights issue:

    I sinceerely hope the Scottish Government drops this nonsense and starts doing something more unseful,


  2. The nicewaycode website replaced their zebra-crossing image with one showing a car driver stopped properly. I looked but couldn't find the original image

  3. After sitting through the "stakeholder consultation" I got the distinct impression that the "research" was just a couple of focus groups. Certainly the Horse ad came out of that, it was suggested by a "white van man" apparently.

    Sadly the deaths will continue until we get decent cycling infrastructure, but this may take so time.

  4. It smacks of the same approach the Westminster gov takes regarding the harm of drugs, or the impact of immigrants - never let facts get in the way of a winning policy.

  5. Thanks for this post - especially for the part about converting revenue to capital. I noticed the exchange you mention, and my first reaction was that surely revenue could be converted to capital, but wasn't sure if the rule that applies to local authorities also applied to SG spending. Thanks for confirming that it does. I think that provides me with the final piece for completion of my email to my constituency and list MSPs! The fact that the Nice Way Code response got this wrong is just one more error to add to their list of mistakes in the execution of the campaign, but (as you so clearly point out) the biggest mistakes were made by those who commissioned the campaign and developed the concepts behind it (apparently in ignorance or defiance of any proper evidence).

    I am not a cyclist (neither am I a horse!), but I am a pedestrian and my kids are cyclists and unicyclists (so far, mainly around the relatively unthreatening roads of Orkney). I am also a citizen of Scotland, and your description of "lines to take" and the relationships and attitudes behind that approach start to make sense of the Nice Way Code situation (and quite a few others in different areas of policy) which is almost incomprehensible if all we focus on is the dismal end product.

    @Yokota: You can find the original zebra crossing image here (as well as more excellent analysis of Nice Way Code):

  6. Good post, particularly the point about infrastructure. Infrastructure won't compel participation, but it's far less likely - maybe even impossible? - without it, as better explained in this post:

  7. I was completely with you until I got to your point about the nice German infrastructure.

    As an Irish person who has been living in Germany (Northern Bavaria) for years, I have been rather more impressed by the standard of driving I encounter in Germany (often surprisingly good for such a car-centred culture) than I have been wowed by German cycling infrastructure.

    I've only once felt the need to catch up with a driver here and tell him his driving was rubbish, and that lone driver wasn't even a local; he was from an adjacent country where the idea of giving cyclists space has yet to catch on.

    In my suburban residential neighbourhood, we have various streets with a 30 km/h limit, but I regularly see drivers doing only half that as they wait patiently for a chance to overtake one of the local free-range children messing around on a bike or cycling home with a violin case or a trumpet or a schoolbag slung across their shoulders.

    1. Avocado Zest - that was pretty much our experience of Germany as well. But what also struck me in Southern Bavaria was the number of home zones, with limits as low as 10kmh, but also in Munich, the simplicity of a lot of infrastructure - a white line on the pavement. It's nowhere near as good as the Netherlands, but what with the incredibly courteous drivers as well, it's a cycling paradise compared to the UK.