Another thought from last weekend's trip to Amsterdam with eldest child. I never used to wear a cycle helmet, but I got one when I bought my road bike last year, because I now ride faster and harder, and I need one to comply with sportive rules. I've started wearing it more often when out on my town bike too, partly our of habit, partly out of solidarity with the kids. So I rolled into Amsterdam with a lump of polystyrene on my head.
Of course, I stood out like a sore thumb. No-one wears a helmet in Amsterdam. No lycra or 'athleisure' wear either – just ordinary clothes (although there were a few MAMILs outside the city dressed exactly as we do here in the UK). And everybody rattles along at quite a pace on those clunky-looking 'Granny bikes' – certainly faster than the stately 10mph at which Harry and I were trundling.
I've never understood the bile which parts of the UK media and public throws at cyclists. Calls for us to pay the mythical 'road tax', mandatory cycle helmets, insurance, registration plates. I can't believe that so many people are so resentful that they aren't allowed to drive a tonne and a half of pollution-spewing metal at 70mph without a few restrictions, that they think those who choose to push 10kg of alloy, emissions-free, at 12mph should somehow shoulder the same burden.
We will hit a tipping point of course. In the Netherlands almost every driver also rides a bike, so bike-bile doesn't occur. (Well, it kind of does, as tourists who don't know what they're doing seems to wind up the locals – see pic). But I've found the same in organisations. Once a critical mass of people are involved in Sustainability, it becomes 'the new normal' and the resistance fades. But the key to getting that critical mass is to make the price of entry as low as possible – no mandatory cycle helmets, literally or metaphorically.
On Thursday, the eldest child and I set off on our bikes to Amsterdam – Harry had won the ferry tickets in a prize draw from a cyclocross race he'd won. We made a little video about our trip which you can watch below – and yes he really did slide into a stinking stream on the way to the ferry. He was very lucky he wasn't injured, but we both had a whiff of stagnant water about us for the rest of the trip.
As always on journeys abroad, I had my eyes peeled for different approaches to Sustainability. Eight years ago, a business/pleasure trip to Belgium had really brought home the difference between that country and the UK on renewable energy at that time. However this time the difference wasn't apparent; the number of wind turbines we saw approaching the Dutch coast was similar to the number we saw along the North East coast of England on our way back to the Tyne on Sunday morning.
The biggest difference I noticed was the cycling infrastructure. A friend of mine, on seeing our video, said we had managed to make the Tyneside cycle paths as good as the Dutch ones, but there is an extremely important difference. By chance, the old riverside railway on the north bank of the Tyne has been converted into Hadrian's Cycleway, connecting our neighbourhood with the ferry dock. If the dismantled railway route wasn't there to build the cycle path, I doubt we would have cycled at all – we'd have been dodging lorries the whole way.
In the Netherlands, there is no such lottery. Every route has a cycle route. Every roundabout had a outer cycling ring. Every junction is properly signposted.
When we hit Amsterdam, we didn't need to work out a good cycle route to get through the bustling city centre to our hotel – we just picked the roads that went where we wanted to go (although if you watch the video, Harry was a bit overwhelmed by the sheer number of Amsterdamers shooting past us on bikes and mopeds as we made our stately way along the canals).
The generic lesson from this experience is: we must make every option a Sustainable option. Customers, employees and stakeholders ideally shouldn't have to make a choice between Sustainability and non-Sustainability, and, if they do, the decision making process should be heavily tilted towards the former.
George Osborne may have been unceremoniously booted out of the UK Treasury by incoming PM Theresa May, but one of his legacies will live with us for decades as May rubber-stamped his deal with the Chinese Government to finance new nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point. For a man who denigrated renewables on value for money grounds, Osborne's parsimony deserted him on Hinkley, with even nuclear's biggest proponents wincing at the cost of the new facility.
Unrelated, but related, The Independent's Sean O'Grady launched an anti-cyclist tirade at the news that West Midlands Police are fining drivers who skim rider's elbows. He completely omits to mention that the crackdown was in response to the Police's own evidence that only 2% of serious collisions involving cyclists were the cyclist's fault.
Both can only be explained by ingrained mindsets. Osborne clearly buys the old "renewables too expensive, nuclear too cheap to meter" myth and O'Grady plays the old "cyclists aren't real road users, so should simply keep out of the way" saw. Neither men are stupid, but they manage to argue stupid things because humans tend to see the world through a rather fixed worldview.
I cleave to the belief that the biggest barrier to sustainability is just six inches wide, the space between our ears. For sustainability to become the norm, we've got to change these, and many other, worldviews. Rants, like mine above, won't work to change those minds – we've got to find ways of finding the common ground and moving on from there. What I call Green Jujitsu.
I'm shaking the lactic acid out of my legs the day after the toughest cycle I've done in a long, long time (possibly ever), a 75-mile sportive around the North York Moors with plenty of brutal ascents and descents (the pic above is actually from the Yorkshire Dales, but we did quite a few 25%+ climbs yesterday). What shocked me was, having come in the top 9% on the 'Standard' route in the 64-mile Cyclone sportive a month ago, I just scraped into the top half of the 'Standard' table yesterday. Added to that, at least two thirds of the participants did one of the two much longer, tougher routes than the one I did. It was sobering – I was suddenly plunged into a different league and it wasn't entirely a comfortable experience.
There are definitely different leagues in the Corporate Sustainability world. At the top we have those such as Interface, Unilever, Tesla, GE and, arguably, Marks & Spencer who are transforming the way they do business. The next level down contains the kind of business that signs up to the RE100 (100% renewable energy) pledge which will be tough to meet, but who aren't going through such a level of transformation. Below that are the companies who may be doing exciting things, but don't have really challenging targets. The bottom two leagues are those who are following the rest at a distance and those doing nothing.
What I find interesting and frustrating in equal measure is that many practitioners define themselves against the others in their league rather than aiming to leap up to the next level. Like my cycling, doing well at one level feels much more comfortable than being mediocre to poor in the next level up. But if you stay in your comfort zone, your efforts will inevitably plateau.
So what are you going to do to challenge yourself? Stretch targets matching those in the league above make a fine starting point.
Before the horrors of the last few days, it must have been a slow news period as the Telegraph rolled out another of their 'lycra lout' articles about the village of Great Budworth which claims to be under siege from the two-wheeled menaces. I think one anecdote summarises the story:
"One nearly crashed into my brother's car as he was pulling out of the drive and shouted at him."
Or, translated into objective language:
"My brother pulled out on to a road without looking properly, nearly knocked someone off his bike, endangering his life, and was surprised that the guy was angry about it."
What surprises me is that neither the story-teller, the brother, the journalist or the editor realised the stupidity of this line. I'm sure they're all intelligent people, but they regurgitate this nonsense because it backs up the way they have already made up their mind. This is known as confirmation bias.
As a Sustainability practitioner you will have come across this phenomenon time and time again. The presumption that Sustainability must cost more, despite all the facts and figures you provide. The presumption that renewable energy will never be cost effective despite plunging prices. The presumption that Sustainability is not a core business issue despite the fact that those who do Sustainability better have been shown to make more profit. The 'zombie arguments' from climate change deniers refuse to die for this very reason.
Like those in the Telegraph article, there is no point in trying to confront those 'misconceptions' head on (just have a look at all the Godwin's-Law-breaking arguments on Twitter for proof). My Green Jujitsu approach works on the heart as well as trying to appeal to the mind, by getting people involved in Sustainability using their core skills and interests. For example, it's said that the Netherlands doesn't suffer from this us-and-them battle between motorists and cyclists because almost all drivers cycle as well, so they identify with being on two wheels.
So if you are locked into a war of attrition over a Sustainability issue or project, stop, take a step back and think about how you can make it appealing to your opponents' hearts as well as minds.
I'm down in North East London for a couple of days learning about the 'mini-Holland' project in Walthamstow – a substantial investment in making suburban streets cycle/walking/people friendly. I'm here with my local councillor hat on, but I thought some of you would be interested in both the design concepts and some of the change management 'issues'.
You see, the mini-Holland projects have kicked off some pretty virulent opposition, including organised demonstrations. Even when I tweeted I was on my way to see the project, I got two negative replies saying the changes had caused traffic chaos while doing nothing to increase cycling, with only one person being positive. So progress has been fairly gnarly despite the Council's extensive attempts at consultation and co-design.
For many people, me included, it is hard to see who would prefer to have thousands of cars rat-running through their street every day rather than a mini-orchard and wildflowers - see pic above. The project involves some really lovely design touches, such as the bollards/kids' obstacle course hybrid shown right and lots of other beautification.
While some of those who opposed changes have changed their minds, many others, as we have seen, have stuck to their guns. Unfortunately, the project manager could offer no magic wand to deal with this, other than a tin hat, and one of the team confided to us that he probably would turn down a similar project role in the future as it had been so tough.
This is a real shame as we could see benefits just pedalling around – the traffic restricted shopping streets were clearly much more vibrant than those with traffic. The dad cycling past with his 6 year old son on the roadway was highly symbolic of a better future. As with many elements of sustainability, we know where we need to be, but getting there is the challenge.
On Saturday, I finally tested my cycling ability (and new midlife-crisis carbon-fibre bike) at the Virgin Cyclone Sportive – 64 miles around Northumberland and including the notorious Ryals climb - hence the grimace in the pic! I did much better than I expected, coming 83rd fastest out of the 855 who finished this circuit [head swells alarmingly] - not that it's a race. No.
Actually, I'm just as delighted about my eldest son suddenly getting the cycling bug, with a 'can we go on our bikes' a constant refrain. With the younger two already keen, and their mother enjoying a tootle on two wheels too, the Kane family is gearing up for many enjoyable days out.
And next week I'm off down to the big smoke with my Councillor hat on to see the 'mini-Holland' in Waltham Forest to learn how to bring cycling to more people here in Newcastle. All in all, I'm spending a lot of time on or thinking about bikes.
Cycling is, obviously, the best thing in the world. It is low carbon, healthy, promotes clean air, cheap (unless you're a middle aged man...), supports local services, creates convivial communities – the list goes on. And, compared to many solutions to the climate crisis, it's a pretty easy way to engage with your employees. Decent bike storage, showers and lockers will go a long way to promote cycling to work. Working with local authorities to improve cycle links to your premises can lead to even bigger gains. Providing maps, maintenance courses and organising cycle events can help even further.
Are you cycle friendly? You should be.
"When I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race." - H. G. Wells
I wasn't planning on blogging today – in fact I had intended to be waking up for my fourth morning under canvas (well, nylon) at Wooler at the north end of the Cheviots. However our deliberations on the weather came to an abrupt conclusion when the cheap gazebo we used for cooking took off yesterday morning, leaving me standing in a field, holding a full cafetiere in a stiff northerly wind, with a surprised expression on my face. However difficult it was to dismantle the tent in the wind yesterday, it was going to be easier than doing it with the same wind plus precipitation this morning.
But before that slightly dramatic end (thank god most people left our field on Monday – that flying gazebo could have done some real damage) we had a fantastic time. Breakfast with buzzards soaring overhead then swooping down and scattering rabbits, some really gorgeous walks with picnics, the boys playing in the stream that runs through the camp site, dinner al fresco and bedtime stories as the sun went down (see pic). I also got to sneak off for a 46 mile coffee ride on my brand new carbon fibre road bike (well I have just turned 45 so I had to buy one).
I try not to get too romantic about the 'back to nature' element of camping – all the high-tech fabrics, sleeping bags, inflatable mattresses, gas cooker and cool bags make our annual family forays very comfortable. But there is something wonderful about being buffeted that wind, hearing the peep of the oystercatcher protecting its young in the middle of the night and watching the kids really get down with nature (although the 'slug licking' maybe went a tad too far).
Is the model of embedding oneself in nature while wearing a Polartec fleece and a Gore-tex cagoule the one for our sustainable future? Appropriate technology allowing us top quality of life in harmony with our fantastic natural world sounds like a winner to me.
Although the fate of our gazebo, now lying mangled in Wooler's household waste recycling centre, reminds us what happens when we get it wrong.
Last Tuesday, I got on my bike for the first time since I dislocated my finger in early January (it's been a very long haul), and toured some of the nature reserves of Newcastle with Mrs K before dropping down onto the Tyne and heading back home. Apart from a short break to sit outside a pub in the sun with a local beer. "The Freedom!" I thought "The Freedom!"
It's a weird one, because this was one of the most sustainable days out I could imagine, yet sustainability and freedom are often seen as polar opposites. Both the right and left of the political spectrum are more than happy to argue they are incompatible.
But think about the freedoms of sustainability: the freedom to enjoy clean air, beaches and rivers, the freedom to get clean energy without being in hock to various oppressive regimes around the world, freedom to sell your own energy to the grid, freedom to cycle or walk wherever you want, freedom from extreme weather or rising sea levels. I'd prefer any of these to the freedom to sit in a car in a traffic jam on a hot day.
The point I'm trying to make is that to cope with all the information we have to process, we narrow our thinking to certain frames. If we frame sustainability as anathema to freedom, then people will switch off. If we frame sustainability as a form of freedom, people will take note.
You'd have to have the heart of Katie Hopkins not to be moved by the refugee crisis – a humanitarian disaster unfolding in front of our eyes. The reasons for this huge movement of people are many and some commentators have linked the mass movement of people to the impacts of climate change.
To me, this is wrong. Not wrong as in factually incorrect, but the wrong argument to make at the wrong time. It comes across as opportunistic bandwagon jumping when emotions are high – and will make the general public, the people we need to win over, less likely to hear the warnings on climate, not more – "There they go again..."
One of the reasons I don't join pressure groups is this kind of one-eyed hectoring. It frustrates me when I hear it from all parts of the environmental movement from cycling lobbyists to anti-fracking militants (for the record I'm very pro-cycling and moderately anti-fracking). It's fine if campaigners just want to feel good about themselves, but if they really want to make a difference, they need to be much better attuned to the public mood.
So I had my meeting with sustainability officials at the City Council of Portland, which is unlike any local Government I've come across before. It has only 6 elected officials – the Mayor, four commissioners and an auditor – for a city of half a million people. Apparently this means things can happen quickly – IF you have the attention of one of the first five.
My meeting wasn't on the record, so I must emphasise the following things I gleaned are my impressions rather than the express opinions of the Council officials (and I take full responsibility for any errors):
While the City now has an exemplary sustainability reputation, it wasn't always this way. It was sued by the federal Government in the 1970s over air quality standards.
The City has integrated sustainability into its city plan, but that plan doesn't mention sustainability – it is just embedded in there;
Renewable energy is not a big thing in Portland as Federal incentives are weak and electricity is dirt cheap (8c a unit). This explains the one weakness I've noticed in Portland compared to, say, Newcastle where I live, a lack of domestic solar;
Summer temperatures are definitely rising (it hit 36°C yesterday and may be warmer today) which has led to retrofitting of domestic air conditioning which is a big challenge;
The first move in the cycle network was to install cycle parking around the city. As local businesses saw more business coming their way from cyclists, they became open to the idea of more cycle infrastructure. There's now a waiting list from businesses for cycle parking;
The cycle greenways that form the wider network were very low cost – signs, speed bumps and the occasional cycle crossing. The idea is to divert drivers and create safety in numbers for cyclists by funnelling them along those routes;
The sustainable drainage swales I saw, are not just a trial – there's 1,000 of them across the city. In addition, every new development is responsible for dealing with 100% of stormwater on site. As a result, many buildings have green roofs and/or gardens to retain excess water;
While the hippy/alternative culture creates expectations, it can also cause resistance to, for example, a shift to more dense housing to avoid unlimited sprawl;
A key tactic is to compare the cost of 'sustainability infrastructure' with that of car infrastructure. For example a new major bridge is about to open for trams, light trains, cycles and pedestrians. If cars had been factored in, it would have tripled the costs.
I'd like to send a big thank you to everybody who helped with this visit – I've learnt a lot!
Back in the (work) saddle today after a wonderfully lengthy August break in Belfast and latterly Wensleydale, Yorkshire. Speaking of saddles, I took my bike with me to enjoy the glorious countryside of the latter. And those U-shaped glacial valleys give the cyclist plenty of challenges - I did the Buttertubs pass as featured on the Tour de France earlier in the summer, the more difficult climb to Fleet Moss from Hawes (supposedly one of the 10 most difficult in the UK) and plenty of even steeper backroads like the one above by Semer Water which I climbed 3 times all told.
It is said that major cycle races are won on the climbs, not the descents. I try to remember this at work all the time and I strongly believe it applies to sustainability practitioners in general. We are trying to facilitate change on a massive level, often against prevailing short-term trends and some bizarre prejudices (the bile of the anti-cycling lobby is downright frightening). But it is the organisations and entrepreneurs who attack the climbs with gusto that will win in the long term.
That's not to say we should make life difficult for ourselves - expert cyclists know which gear to choose, when and what to eat and drink and subtle variations in cycling position. In the same way, sustainability techniques such as my own Green Jujitsu will help you facilitate change much more easily, just like riding a lighter bike will help you climb faster.
But we shouldn't shy away from those big steep climbs - they are the road to success. Relish the challenge!
Two things have been massively distracting me from work this week - Team GB's continuing amazing success at the Olympic Games and the Curiosity rover's descent onto the Martian surface. So, in order to justify this skiving to myself, I've been thinking about what lessons we can bring back to the field of sustainability from these achievements.
Like much of the country I've been paying particular attention to the Olympic track cycling. Team GB's domination of the Siberian pine boards in the Velodrome has been put down to cumulative incremental gains - tweaking absolutely everything to squeeze the last improvement out of it - after all you only need to beat your opponent by a thousandth of a second to clinch gold. So something that looks very normal to us - someone riding a bicycle - has been optimised to the nth degree.
The Mars landing is altogether a different proposition - although one wag on Twitter described it as "NASA takes gold in the 563 billion metres." It takes 7 minutes for Curiosity to pass through the Martian atmosphere, but 14 minutes to send a signal back to earth, so there's no way to control it in real time. It all has to be pre-planned and programmed before Curiosity leaves earth and once it goes into what NASA calls "the seven minutes of terror", it's on its own. The programme is costing $2.5 billion and 60% of past Mars missions have failed, so we're talking about really high stakes, high reward. And if you watch the video below, you'll see just how ingenious NASA have been with the innovative 'sky crane'.
On the face of it, aiming for sustainability is more like the Mars mission than the track cycling. We're not looking just to be fractionally more sustainable than last time, but to take ambitious leaps forward, thinking outside the box and taking risks - landing on Mars is the ultimate stretch target. But like the cycling, and unlike the Mars programme, we do have fine, real time control over how organisations and technologies perform - testing and tweaking to optimise performance in a constant search from excellence. And the idea of cumulative incremental improvements has applications to sustainability too - straightening a pipe in a process can mean smaller pumps are possible which in turn can lead to a lighter structure and so on - lots of synergistic increments can lead to significant improvements within the limitations of your overall approach. There are lessons from both.
So in answer the question I set myself, yes, there is justification for the amount of time I've spent in front of the TV. Now back to work.
Bradley Wiggins is a hero. Winning the Tour De France and an Olympic Gold Medal in the space of eleven days and bringing a huge dollop of charisma and rock'n'roll attitude with it - wow! And then he goes and blots his copybook, in my, er, book, by appearing to call for compulsory cycle helmets - although he later back-pedalled (ha!) on this.
We can go into all sorts of arguments about road accident statistics and survival rates, but to me it comes down to a single factor - if cycling is good (good for us, good for others, good for the planet) then it should be encouraged, not discouraged. As with all sustainable behaviour issues, when it comes to the decision point we must always make the 'good' option easier to follow than the 'bad' option. Having to purchase and wear a cycle helmet is an obstacle and cyclists face enough of those already. If you prefer to wear one, then fair enough, but experiences in Australia and New Zealand suggest cycling will become much less popular if it is enforced.
As soon as post this, I'll be going out pedalling rather more sedately than Wiggins along the back roads and bridleways of Tyneside - visiting lots of tea shops - with the wind in my hair as it should be. Just hoping I don't meet an ironic and sticky end having tempted fate!
I love cycling. I'm rarely happier than buzzing along a country lane in the sun with a cool breeze, heading towards a distant teashop for a cuppa and a slice of cake.
On the wider scale, cycling is great for us all. It makes us healthier, gives us better local air quality and makes our cities quieter and more convivial. Some cities like Copenhagen have more than a third of commuters travelling by bike, yet in other countries (ie here in the UK) urban cycling is the preserve of the notorious MAMIL (Middle Age Man In Lycra).
So how can a responsible business encourage its employees to cycle? Here are a few ideas:
Take part in a bike to work scheme or similar to subsidise cycle purchases;
Offer cyclists mileage rates for business travel;
Provide decent, secure, covered cycle storage in convenient locations (I saw some notorious 'wheel bender' stands at a nature reserve today grrrr... if in doubt, ask an expert);
If your business is in a city centre, provide/sponsor public cycle stands and/or air pumps;
Provide lockers and showers;
Provide free cycle maintenance classes;
Provide cycle proficiency classes;
Organise social cycles to create a buzz;
Encourage senior staff members to cycle to lead the way;
Publish cycle-related stories in company newsletters;
Create cycle challenges to see which team can cut car use the most;
Ensure cycles can access your site safely;
Enhance links between cycle paths/routes and your site (including signage);
Sponsor new cycle routes where appropriate/possible;
Provide free cycle route maps and other information;
Provide cycles for business trips - including folding cycles for journeys involving the train) and, where appropriate, getting around site;
Lobby trade bodies, economic development quangos and local authorities to factor cycling into their plans.
Boosting cycling is an obvious, cheap, quick win for any organisation wanting to go green. It can also contribute to what I call Corporate Civic Responsibility (enabling the local public to be more sustainable by using your financial muscle).
This is the third in a new series of tips extracted from the forthcoming Green Business Bible e-book:
Many staff are put off cycling to work because of poor facilities. Decent covered cycle stands*, lockers and a shower will go a long way to help. You could also provide maps showing local cycle routes.
* Avoid the 'wheelbenders' that you put the front wheel of the bike into - their nick name says it all. 'Sheffield stands' - an inverted U - are best.