What Boardman’s Belisha Battle tells us about Sustainability
Olympic gold medallist and yellow-jersey wearer Chris Boardman has been butting up against a brick wall of bureaucracy in his role as walking and cycling commissioner of Greater Manchester. He wants to introduce European-style simple zebra crossings on 20,000 side streets at a cost of £300 each. Unfortunately UK law says zebra crossings have to be wired to the electric mains and have belisha beacons and zigzag markings, which cost £30,000. Do the math.
From a quick delve into Wikipedia, the problem seems to be that in the UK, belisha beacons came first (in 1934) and the zebra stripes added over time until they became a legal requirement in 1951. So Boardman’s plan hits the sand because of laws and traditions which evolved 70-85 years ago.
And this is the rub. Almost everybody understands the need for Sustainability, but few understand that it will require a rewiring of all the systems, infrastructure and (most importantly) mindsets that have evolved over decades, if not centuries. Trying to deliver radical change within a system designed for the status quo is almost impossible, so we’ve got to change the system.
The digital revolution took place because it was largely unfettered by existing systems – not always a good thing as we can see from its exploitation by dark forces. Unfortunately Sustainability is in the real, physical world of buildings, vehicles, agriculture and utilities. You will quickly find that a huge raft of stuff, from legislation to sunk costs to supply chains, is not fit for purpose for a low carbon, circular economy. Some things you can work around, but all too often we end up screaming “But, whyyyyyyyyyy?” into the void.
Boardman is renowned as an innovator and his freethinking has fallen foul of the establishment in the past, most notably when his ‘superman’ riding position was banned by the cycling overlords at the UCI. Hopefully his celebrity position will encourage some at the DfT to start thinking differently, but unfortunately there is a whole mountain of such fixes required. We need a series of systematic reviews to root out such structural barriers to a Sustainable future because it really shouldn’t, and needn’t, be this way.